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CPSR Journal Vol 19, No 4
Volume 19, Number 4 The CPSR Journal Fall 2001

Electronic Records and Government Accountability: Present Practice and Future Prospects by Megan C. Kinney

Presenters: David Wallace and Cal Lee, University of Michigan School of Information

[ Read the program notes ]

Americans have often taken for granted the reliability and authenticity of government records. Despite long lines and some red tape, we are generally able to get the public records we need. Technology, however, has complicated the acquisition and preservation of government records. David Wallace and Cal Lee of the University of Michigan School of Information presented some of the issues raised by government records that are “born digital.”

In a brief history of legislative actions involving government records, the creation of the National Archives (1934), the Records Disposal Act (1943), the Federal Records Act (1950, 1976, 1984), the Presidential Records Act (1978), the Freedom of Information Act (1966, 1974, 1986, 1996), and the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 (EFOIA) were cited as playing an important role in the current state of government records. As technology improved, the use of computers increased: from mainframes to desktop computers to networks. The ubiquity of computers in the government has raised several challenging issues regarding the storage, use and archiving of government records.

These issues are best enumerated with the following questions, posed by Wallace and Lee:

  • When are electronic office communications “records”?
  • How should electronic office records be appraised and scheduled?
  • In what format should records be maintained?
  • Where and how should record keeping systems fit in?
  • Where and how should long-term preservation be accomplished?
  • How will born digital records be identified and processed under FOIA?

If and when the previous questions are answered, how shall the government manage its E-records? Lee suggests that the implementation of software applications with record keeping capabilities is still quite limited, but software is just part of the challenge that the government faces in taking on this monumental task. Resistance to change, not surprisingly, has an influence on progress (or lack thereof) in E-Record management. Migrating from a largely paper-based system of document storage and accountability to an online system can have a huge impact on the government and how the public perceives it.

Preserving documents that already exist on paper, or “digitization,” has been more successful than developing a preservation system for documents that are “born digital.” A lot of the conceptual work in recent years shows promise, including functional requirements, models, metadata standards, and several technical preservation strategies. However, the information that needs to be preserved is growing at an exponential rate, and failing to act now will result in the permanent loss of numerous sources.

Wallace and Lee raised some very difficult issues regarding government records in the digital age. These issues are vital to the government and its relations with citizens, especially regarding government accountability. We are at a turning point. Technology could be used to decrease the accountability of government records or to encourage, adapt, and reinforce it. Information and computer professionals have an important role to play in this process. They must rely on equal amounts of technical skills, innovation, and professional ethics.

For more information about Government E-Records and issues of digital preservation the see:

Electronic Recordkeeping Resources
Center for Technology in Government (Favorite web sites)

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