Management
February 25, 2014

Information management: Where’s the beef?

Today’s tasty hamburger bun is a marvel of industrial cuisine and mass distribution. But the vital part remains the content – the burger. So it is with the new marvels of technology: excellent buns but the real beef always was and still is the content.

One of the key defining characteristics of any public service, clear since the establishment of government over 5000 years ago, is the obligation to create and maintain a record of actions, decisions and transactions. Without records, the public service is an introverted mob, well paid but responsible to no-one. In the paper and analog world, this requirement was well understood and many took pride in keeping a solid record of how the public service had fulfilled the public trust.

In the digital world of information superabundance where information sharing, collaboration, and access are the rule rather than the exception, managing information of value extends beyond the traditional paper record and encompasses open data, documents, email, social media, databases – in short, all forms and formats of information. Information of value provides the essential foundation for informed decision-making, stakeholder participation, business intelligence, open government, e-discovery, and access to information. Managing information of value is a key contributor of business efficiency and effectiveness.

Records and high value information assets, maintained with integrity as evidence and intelligence of what we have done, can be too easily submerged in the deluge of information. In too many governments, the corporate responsibility center for the effective management of information resources and for the integrity of these assets as legal/audit evidence remains vague and is perceived as an administrative function rather than a strategic enabler.

CIO as chief technology officer
Enterprise information management is the new digital imperative. In the gradual shift to e-records, shared drives, big data, and email, recordkeeping and information valuation skills were lost, replaced by a new IM/IT function in the ’90s under a Chief Information Officer (CIO). The complexity and costs of major systems, coupled with the procurement and development issues preoccupied CIOs. But the real costs to programs of lost information, training, lack of enterprise information architecture, audit, and access to information procedures were buried in a thousand separate budgets and counted for naught. While IM/IT convergence was a well-intentioned effort to manage electronic information, CIOs in the public and private sectors have instead been primarily recognized as Chief Technology Officers, preoccupied with acquiring and implementing new systems, many of which totally ignore the fate of the information and essentially promote a “keep everything” or “keep nothing” environment.

The concept of record and information of value has largely been forgotten, believing that systems automatically manage records, data, and vaguely defined information. In most offices, information continues to be hoarded, not shared; not treated as an enterprise resource. The mindset regarding information as a byproduct of public sector management tends to remain solidly intact. In our efforts to create an efficient, innovative and modern public service, managers and CIOs alike have venerated technology as the asset in the IM/IT paradigm rather than the content – focused on the bun, not the burger.

At the same time, information management professionals have struggled to find a rightful place in the IM/IT model, often relegated to basement filing rooms, libraries, or archival functions with an associated minor budget line. In stark contrast to the intention, rarely have they been part of the IT management dialogue. And yet, program managers readily recognize the value of managing information as a strategic asset and continue to struggle with how to break down information silos, maintain integrity of information, and access to the right information inside and outside their organizations.

Looking ahead
Fast forward a few decades. Senior levels of governments around the world are seen to be oral cultures, heavily reliant on the vagaries of memory rather than authoritative records. Continuing cases of missing records, failed audits, and lost corporate memory have culminated in a number of scandals around mass email deletion. Email inboxes are clean but no record remains. Private email systems are used to circumvent access requests. The technology to ensure that no senior official can make a wholesale deletion of their email account is readily available but often never activated. Accountability, legal obligations, and continuity of government are irredeemably compromised.

We have heard numerous examples across jurisdictions of misplaced USB drives, which is as much an IM as an IT security issue. What about the time wasted in the e-discovery process and of the access to information requests that are rejected or not processed? Or the time lost daily by employees simply trying to find the authoritative version of a file or to conduct essential research, particularly when the information has not been created in their specific work unit or is not available in enterprise libraries?

These are but a few examples of the dark side of information mismanagement, exacerbated by a predominant focus on technology. The Information Commissioner of Canada has noted in a recent report the need for information of value to be identified within instant messaging and PIN-to-PIN exchanges on mobile devices. Email is a record and must be treated as such.

New technologies
Now, with the onset of apps, BYOD, the cloud, coupled with demands to manage the enterprise information resources as valuable assets and the web as an operating system, the focus shifts to where it should have been all along: the essential asset, the information. Open government, business intelligence, and e-services will not become realities through a continued focus on technology to the serious detriment of information and record.

Public service leaders continue to struggle to make the management of information part of the culture and a core competency of public servants. In the federal government, the Deputy Minister and ADM Roundtables on Information Management and Recordkeeping in 2006-07 articulated the growing information crisis, resulting in the Directive on Recordkeeping as the foundation for managing digital information.

Despite the policy, recordkeeping and information management continue to be practiced in most departments using analog records management techniques and technology systems, rather than focusing on its intention, which was primarily to build a platform for enterprise information management and essential skills and competencies in information valuation among all public servants. Digital recordkeeping calls for public servants to recognize and make informed decisions about information of value in the context of the mission and outcomes of the program. It also calls for IM/IT professionals to adopt a new frame of reference to information.

New systems are also coming forward for implementation. Coupled with recordkeeping, GCDOCS for example, has the potential of transforming how the federal government works. Similar programs are being introduced provincially. Properly programmed as an essential business system oriented to meet the accountability, transparency, and business intelligence needs of government, it can ensure the continuity of key records and it can enable the whole-of-government approach to managing information. The impending risk is that it will simply be configured as a traditional IT/IM system, like earlier versions that stood alone, separated from the business architecture of departments and agencies.

Making change
Hard experience has shown us that technology and policy alone will not enable us to make a significant cultural shift. They will enable incremental change but the disruptive change required to support digital realities will only come from within programs and by public servants, supported by resolute leadership. More needs to be done across governments to elevate the information discussion strategically and systematically, beyond mere rhetoric. In their recent report to the Prime Minister, Paul Tellier, David Emerson and their colleagues made a cogent observation, heavy with meaning: “A digital population cannot be well served by an analog government.”

Any digital vision cannot be realized by attitudes, habits, and methods more appropriate to the analog world: information silos, hierarchical power, traditional accountability, closed networks and blind territoriality defending “my information.” A new form of leadership is required to manage and even share information as a strategic resource. Digital information skills need to be developed as a core competency of all public servants in an increasingly service-based knowledge organization. CIOs need to rethink their perspective and role in the digital landscape. Program managers need to become active managers of their information assets, supported and advised by information professionals.

Canada cannot wait for generational change in the public service. Canadians need and expect their governments to be as integrated and service oriented as other major service providers.

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