What Is Needed to Make Transparency Meaningful in a Digital Age?

​Speech delivered by Fabien Lengellé, in lieu of Daniel J. Caron,
at the 2012 Access and Privacy Conference, Edmonton, Alberta.
 
Check against delivery
 
Good Morning.

I would like to thank the organizers of this year’s Access and Privacy Conference for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts concerning the nature of transparency in the digital age.

I find that the title of the conference, The Domino Effect: Learning How to Fall in Place, is aptly chosen, especially if we take into consideration that what we decide to document and preserve as a society, and the manner in which we arrive at making these decisions, creates a cascade of effects through time that impacts on the capacity of future generations to understand their past, present and future.

Today, I would like to focus on how the emerging dynamics of the digital environment are transforming our traditional notions of governance, in particular the role of the archives in its function to preserve the continuing administrative memory of the state and how this in turn supports our conceptions of transparency.

To summarize, upon examination of the question what is needed to make transparency meaningful in a digital age, two key notions come to the forefront.

The first is the notion of identification, capture, and preservation of the information resources whose information value will persist over time. In other words, the capacity to distinguish and keep that which has enduring value from that which is simply noise by employing a method of selection.
The second is the notion that in order to make sense of the information resources that we have decided to preserve we need to liberate the information content from its container and be able to place the content within the larger social context from which it was produced.

Taken together, these two fundamental components of modern archival practice lay the foundation from which a comprehensive examination of transparency in the digital realm may proceed.
To begin, what requires due consideration is that just as the documents found in the national archives no longer represent the resident memory of the state, the place of governance is no longer essentially resident in the files of the state. Essentially, governance is no longer the exclusive responsibility of public administrations.

Without question, the evolution of information and communication technologies has brought forward the democratization of documentary production. Similarly, the result of the information technologies revolution is to multiply the number of agents that participate in the function of governance. For instance, in addition to the well-known agents of political parties, government and mainstream media, we must add the ever-growing number of non-governmental organizations and ordinary citizens that exercise their influence within and apart from their social networks. Today, they now possess the means of communication that were previously reserved for the primary agents in society. Consequently, the notion arising from the analogue mindset that access to government records alone will bring about the necessary transparency to hold government agents accountable, needs to be revisited.

First, I will examine the changes that the rise of the digital landscape has brought about within government, and thereafter turn my focus to society at large.
 

Effectively, there is a tendency to conflate notions of accountability with transparency without giving proper thought to the difference between administration and governance.
Simply put, a government can be held accountable on the basis of the administrative records that trace what decisions were made, what resources were allocated, and what results were obtained within any policy sphere. These administrative records must be authentic and authoritative in order to give an accurate representation of the actions undertaken by government. Whether these records are made accessible to the public, on the other hand, is a question concerning the relationship between the state and its citizens.

In summary, accountability arises from sound administrative practices, most notably recordkeeping, whereas transparency is a governance issue that varies culturally depending on the information norms of a society.

In some countries, the affairs of the state are kept secret within a narrow circle. In others, information flows on a “need-to-know” basis, while in still others there are very high levels of transparency in which citizens have seemingly unrestricted access to government records online.

To illustrate the difference between accountability and transparency, we just need to recall the unanticipated perverse effect that calls for greater transparency have had on administrative practices within bureaucracies.

Consciously or unconsciously, bureaucrats have been influenced by the presence of Big Sister, meaning that as they carry out their administrative functions, they may be aware that they are under the “sousveillance” of the citizenry via frequent access to information requests.

This perception can have a negative impact on the accuracy or the completeness of recordkeeping as more and more of the information transactions move “off the record.”
Consequently, what we must avoid is that the calls for greater transparency lead to the reduction in quality of the documentary process which is essential for the administrative function of government.

Indeed, the archive and recordkeeping are the guardians of a continued documentary presence of the past and, in this sense, are the necessary but not the sufficient conditions of transparency in our administrative practices.

As you can imagine, as the Librarian and Archivist of Canada I would hold that if we are to take advantage of the emerging potential of computing and information technologies to render the motions of the machine of government more transparent to Canadians, then this process needs to begin with the archives and, in particular, archival practices adapted to the creation and preservation of digital information.

Looking at the roles and responsibilities of the archive within the context of public administration and government, the long-term preservation of authentic, reliable and retrievable “state memory” has become a fundamental component of twenty-first century administrative accountability.

It is consonant with transparent governance, effective corporate stewardship and the efficient delivery of programs and services to citizens through public business enterprise.

Today, the production and preservation of the documentary causa materialis of the state and its public administration in open and accessible form is increasingly central to the constitution and maintenance of a functional democracy.

Canada's causa materialis can best be defined as the foundational civic goods of our nation—the original documents that record our decisions and actions and the information to be found in our books and other documentary media and artifacts.
 
They are required within society to articulate, express and share common goals.

They provide individuals and groups with the capacities of social literacy necessary to enable their democratic participation within their communities.

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They allow citizens to act on their entitlements, rights and freedoms, and to ensure the accountability of public administration and responsible governance under the rule of law.

They promote an inclusive social consensus and progress through the distribution and sharing of information resources and the preservation of an accessible public memory.
In short, causa materialis are the documents that permit Canadians to function collectively as a democracy.

 
In this context, the archive is one of the core-essential locations of state power and authority manifest through its possession and control over forms of documentary evidence. It is here that we find the presence of the state throughout time: its presence in the past, its presence in the present, and its impeding presence in the future as it leaves traces of its authority and authenticity reflected in its administrative acts.
 
In fact, the archive is a fundamental principle from which administration becomes possible.

Whether in the private or the public sector, administration requires knowledge of the facts, those which are immediately available and those carried over the long term, in order to conceive and implement the appropriate actions that coincide and support organizational objectives. For example, constitutional decisions from the highest courts must be based on historical facts; equalization payments must be based on a factual knowledge of revenues across the country; and judicial decisions must be rendered on the basis of the evidence submitted within the framework of existing jurisprudence.
 
Indeed, the concept of the archive is intrinsically linked to the authority and the authenticity of the facts that are stored and preserved within. It provides reliable information that allows for the accurate documentation of our decisions and actions that reflect the times in which we live and which future generations will receive for their consideration.

Importantly, the archive is not something akin to an archeological site in which layers of documentary sediments form over time as a result of the indiscriminate accumulation of archival material.

Yes, to build an archive is an act of creation, but the act of archiving is also an act of destruction by the means of disposition since not everything can or should be kept. This is especially true in the digital age.
 
Given the volume of digital information that is now being produced, even if we could capture it all, the logistics in managing such a volume of information and to then render it accessible entails a gigantic task beyond our human and financial resource capabilities.
 
Consequently, comprehensive acquisition must give way to representative sampling, which inevitably brings into play a selection process with the appropriate selection criteria. Inevitably, we need to re-conceptualize what it is that we are acquiring and making accessible. In short, it is no longer the object that houses the content that needs to be preserved but the information that is contained within.
 
This means that instead of focusing our method of organizing our holdings on the basis of the nature of the container, we are now moving towards a method of doing so on the basis of the nature of the information. In my mind, this represents a turning point in the history of the archive.

From the Arkhion in ancient Greece, from which we have created official places of public use called archives reflecting an “authoritarian” world and particularly controlled in its documentary production, will we move toward an action, to archive, that reflects the democratized, fragmented documentary production of today?

In so doing, we are speaking of a science that recognizes the impossibility of keeping everything and also the pointlessness and indeed the danger of doing so.

It is a science that focuses instead on studying and understanding the motivations and reasons for expression, the places of writing, the discursive universes, the contexts of creation, and the interveners and their role—and not solely the utility of an object.

It is a science that, on these advances in understanding and knowledge, no longer puts together archives based on the defunct, obsolete archive-object but on the basis of discursive statements that abound on the Web and in the discursive space of our modern societies.

It is a science that ensures the sensible constructions of spaces in which we find content and less places of objects.

This movement away from the physical place that houses documentary heritage objects towards a virtual space in which documentary heritage content can be found is captured in Library and Archives Canada’s modernized approach to the treatment of government records.

By 2017 for example, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) will no longer be accepting, in almost all instances, written government records. Significantly, government records of archival value will no longer pass over the threshold of the archives since they will no longer be ingested in a physical format.
 

Rather, LAC will work in conjunction with the myriad of government departments and agencies to identify and tag their records of business value, utilizing a common Information Technology (IT) infrastructure supplied by Shared Services Canada.

LAC will then exercise its mandated function of the identification, capture, and preservation of records with archival value by extending its custody and control over the records into the digital sphere without taking physical possession of them.

In doing so, does this represent the end of the archives as le lieu physique de la mémoire?
Importantly, it appears within this digital sphere the archive lives on as a result of it being situated in intellectual discourse, or better yet an intellectual ontology, supported by a legal framework, an IT infrastructure, and societal context instead of the fact that it resides in a physical location called the archives.

This is even more the case as we move to identifying and tagging documentary heritage in the society at large that is disseminated on what has become our society’s pre-eminent medium of communication, the Internet. That being said, it is important not to arrive at the conclusion that we can simply leave it up to the people in IT to work out the details.

In fact, one of the stumbling blocks that we have encountered across government departments and agencies is the blind faith in many quarters and at many levels in the capacity of information technology to both handle the volume of current information production and to support the precision of recall necessary for effective public administration.

In what I would call a cultural shift within the public sector, we realized that we needed to bring humans back into the equation. Technology alone will not ensure that the state’s documentary presence will be available and findable. Human intervention is required to bring about this desired end.
So, in conjunction with Treasury Board, Library and Archives Canada worked to raise the importance of the enduring value of government’s information resources as expressed and captured in its business records. As a result, the identification and management of information resources of business value has become fundamental to the implementation of an effective and efficient recordkeeping regime in Government of Canada departments.

To put this all in perspective, one of the core-essential components of a new recordkeeping regime for public administration is the determination and identification of information resources having business value, and the systematic elimination of all other information through authorized and documented disposal processes.

The Government of Canada’s Directive on Recordkeeping enables government departments to differentiate between the vast amounts of information they create on a daily basis and focus resources on managing only those information resources that have business value and that are required to meet the department's business needs, performance requirements and legislated mandate.
The Directive defines information resources as any documentary material produced in published and unpublished form regardless of communications source, information format, production mode or recording medium. They may include textual records, electronic records, new communication media, publications, films, sound recordings, photographs, documentary art, graphics, maps and artifacts.
The Directive also defines information resources of business value as published and unpublished materials, regardless of medium or form, which are created or acquired because they enable and document decision making in support of programs, services and ongoing operations, and support departmental reporting, performance and accountability requirements.

In this complicated and multidimensional context, a technological and format-neutral regime of recordkeeping establishes core-essential administrative and business coherence within government regardless of the technologies employed to support it.

The Directive addresses many of the challenges posed by the abundance of information created and acquired in government work environments.
 
Information resources of business value provide reliable evidence in the form of records of business decisions, activities and transactions, for ministers, program managers and Canadian citizens.

This leads to improved accessibility, supports efficient information retrieval, enhances the efficiency of program and service delivery, avoids duplication of work, prevents issues of limited storage space, clarifies disposition activities and enables a modernized and streamlined recordkeeping culture within the Government of Canada.

Moreover, we realize that given the huge volume of digital documents that the Government of Canada creates, the identification of documents that have enduring business value cannot wait for long periods of time between their creation and the decision to archive them.
 
In a significant break from the past, we are pushing the moment of initial appraisal of whether something has business value to that point in time that we refer to as the “documentary moment,” the moment in which the document is actually created and is subsequently tagged for future reference.

As well, there is the recognition that it is no longer sufficient to simply capture and preserve a documentary corpus without attempting to do the same for the cultural context in which the documents were created. This realization means that we no longer attempt just to capture a particular document as an isolated object. 
 
Instead, the document is viewed as a representation of a particular instance of a societal discourse, reflecting a network of relationships between a numbers of identified agents that have evolved over time.

Consequently, our research, analysis and thinking at LAC have lately been moving the institution towards a whole-of-society approach to content evaluation and appraisal. We merge some of the concepts, theories and research methods of social science with post-modern ideas and other philosophic notions in search of a broader epistemological foundation for decision-making about documentary value, including the heritage value of government’s business information resources. In doing so, we have taken an approach that is similar in kind to that of American scholar Helen Nissenbaum’s approach to the contextual analysis of the flow of information, emerging IT applications, and their impact on traditional concerns for privacy.

Like Nissenbaum, in our domain analysis, we seek to identify the structured social settings in which information resources are produced, paying particular attention to identify the actors, the roles that they play, and the informational norms that influence their communication.

Along with the information content that we seek to capture and preserve, we will also be archiving our domain analysis in order to document the evolution of the various contexts in which information is being produced in Canada. 

In my opinion, this will be essential for future generations to make sense of what we have chosen to leave them as their documentary heritage.

Turning my focus to society at large and the question of what is needed to make transparency meaningful in a digital world, where the function of governance is becoming more widely distributed between private and public actors, I believe that the notions we have struggled with in the government sector are also in play globally.

In order for transparency to be meaningful, the traces of information resources need to be persistent over time.

Yet, as Luciano Floridi has pointed out, without human intervention on the Web there is no preservation component in the traditional sense of its operation or meaning.

Rather, in his view, preservation simply constitutes a “recycling function,” the thinking being that any important information will remain persistent within the computing cloud through a process of creation, collection, storage, distribution, consumption, repurposing and recycling for as long as its content remains useful or relevant. Otherwise, it will be subject de facto to deliberate destruction or incidental erasure through its manifest irrelevance. 

Therefore, memory in this case is a transitory concept of continuously evolving information framed by its contemporary use and relevance. It is not endurable but perishable or compostable. 
In effect, for many observers currently writing about information in the digital environment, “archive” has largely become an obsolete word and an obsolete concept. It is simply a process in a computerized information system understood by users as the temporary “save” or “keep” function. However, from a pure information technology perspective, the functionality of “save” or “keep” is not invested with any semantic meaning around a conscious decision made either by the creator or user about the value of the information object or the resource itself. It is just part of a greater information process.
 

In such a fluid memory environment, what are the incentives to invest in the incremental preservation of long-term static or registered memory over time?

When is it appropriate to do so?

What are the public expectations around this permanent memory context?

There are no easy answers to these questions. However, as long as people exchange information on purely a transactional basis, there is no guarantee that which holds enduring value, in other words that we should render transparent in an open society, won’t perish.

In a similar vein, what I believe to be a more daunting challenge, given the dynamics of social networks embedded on the Web, is the question of authenticity and authority of information resources.

Digital content is cheap to produce and distribute widely, and inherently malleable. One of its attractions is the relative ease in which it can be modified to suit the needs of the user, which may or may not coincide with the intentions of the creator of the information resource.

In a world of endless remixes and mash-ups, how do we establish authority and authenticity?
Indeed, is this even a pertinent question to be addressed given the somewhat anarchistic informational norms that seemingly pervade the World Wide Web?

Presently, the notion of applying creative commons licensing agreements to some of the content on the Web is an attempt to address the problem, but it is too early to know if this practice will gain traction and take hold significantly.

Moreover, much of the communication of the Internet is comprised of shorter units of discourse that are used interactively and that need not be licensed. Tweets are continuously re-tweeted without much, if any, thought given on the authority of their content.

Finally, given the malleability and perishability of the information resources, does it not make sense that as a society we also need to be intervening closer in time to the act of their creation?

Just as we accepted that Tim Berners-Lee post our documents to the Web using HTML, we should now take his advice and tag what we post with linked open data so that others can find and use our information resources.

As well, perhaps a significant portion of what we refer to as historical research should now be devoted to doing domain analysis in real time as events unfold. It is not as if the Internet Archive, with its Wayback Machine, will capture everything that we might find valuable. Consequently, as members of a society we need to become engaged in advancing the public good of the long-term preservation of our information resources. 

At the heart of this new consciousness is the realization that many information resources increase in value as they become more widely distributed. This value may be material or non-material, leading perhaps to the monetary enrichment of the individual and the society or simply a greater sense of well-being that comes about when being involved in the production of knowledge.

In fact, in a digital world, our notions of accountability, transparency, and stewardship need to extend beyond the boundaries and walls of government departments and agencies. Citizens require access to all the records of value that constitute governance if they are to play a meaningful role in how they are governed.

From the perspective of the civic nature of an open society in a digital world, the principle of access to information must be tied to the principle of open governance. But this too requires a cultural shift. It begins with the realization that the production and dissemination of information in a society is its very life blood.

In the world of today, the development of a nation’s information resources is now being imbued with the importance previously reserved for the development of a nation’s natural resources. In such a world, if we are to prosper as individuals and as a society, we need to be mindful of how we participate in the flow of information so that we can all take our rightful place.

Thank you. 
 
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