Preparing Government for Digital and Social Revolution

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Good morning.
 
I would like to thank the organizing committee for the opportunity to share some thoughts and perspectives with you today about the transformations occurring in the public sector.

I will focus on how the digital environment affects information resource development.
 
Thank you also Mr. Tompkins, for the kind introduction.
 
In 2008, I had the pleasure of organizing a conference with several of Mr. Tompkins’ colleagues from Public Works and Government Services Canada.
 
They shared their lessons learned in relation to the documentary discovery phase of the Gomery Commission.
 
I think their reflection continues to remain highly relevant today, especially in light of today’s theme, “Managing E-Records in Canada's Public Sector: Achieve Success in Your Transition from Paper to Electronic Records”.
 
As some of you may recall, the Commission into the Sponsorship Program investigated alleged mismanagement of federal sponsorship activities and their related funding schemes.
 
A forensic audit firm was retained by Justice Gomery for the purposes of evidentiary examination.
 
In the course of their review, the team examined more than 28 million documents.
 
Despite the superabundant documentation submitted as evidence, the auditors were unable to determine what had actually transpired.
 
This prompted Justice Gomery to recommend mandatory recordkeeping within government, conceived as a “duty to document” for all public servants.
 
What also became evident is the fundamental relationship between the management of information having business value, and the capacity to establish democratic, effective, and accountable government.
 
During my presentation, I would like to explore this central relationship.
 
I will also explore how our underlying assumptions on managing public sector information need to be revisited in the Digital Age.
 
To do so, I will discuss three main themes:
  • First, the notion that the development and governance of modern states is dependent on a continuous and utilitarian documentary presence.
  • Second, how the new social behaviors and transformations of the digital age affect the methods supporting the production of the state’s documentary presence, or lack thereof.
  • And third, the imperative need for formal rules that establish the business value of information. In this section I will be highlighting some initiatives LAC is putting forward to support departments. 
Let me first explain how the governance of modern states is dependent on a continuous and utilitarian documentary presence.
 
In effect, it is the continuous documentary production of the state which frames in large part the nature of our political, social and economic spheres.
 
This is one of the cornerstones of our democratic process.
 
In other words, a well-managed documentary presence is necessary to support citizen engagement and participation in a democracy.
 
It is also fundamental to transparency, accountability and responsible governance under the rule of law.
 
One can ask oneself what is the role of the institutions responsible for assuring our society’s documentary production and the discourse that is formed within that society?
 
How will they ensure that present and future generations can continue to build identity, memory, democracy, and literacy on solid foundations?
 
In order for our democracy to function effectively, we must, among other things, have reliable records that document why and how government decisions are made.
 
These records should also document where resources are allocated and what are the results obtained.
 
We must have an established and continuous documentary presence that provides for administrative transparency, accountability and stewardship.
 
Now, let’s start with what may seem for some to be an odd lens on familiar history.
 
Prior to information being stored electronically, most government records were created, classified and stored in a manual, labour-intensive fashion.
 
They were in paper form and stored in filing cabinets, shelves and pigeon-holes. We must not forget that information processing was for millennia a human endeavour.
 
For instance, 19th century clerks used bound document folders.
 
They contained a limited form of paper document types: letters, memoranda, short reports, minutes and records of meetings.
 
These handwritten documents were filed by bundling them up with red ribbons and strings, otherwise known as red tape - a term often associated with modern bureaucracy.
 
Large volumes, known as registers, provided an alphabetical index to their content.
 
For example, the registers of the Department of Indian Affairs kept at Library and Archives Canada were used to track the incoming and outgoing correspondence at headquarters.
 
They came to be known as the 'Red and Black Series' because the color of the leather bound register books marked the difference between eastern and western Canadian correspondence.
 
Notable is the fact that by the 1880s, these registers had become very sophisticated.
 
They classified correspondence not only by individuals, but also by subjects such as treaties, timber licenses and land grants, as well as by Indian agencies and government departments.
 
This correspondence covers the activities and operations of government officers who would regularly update the Department of Indian Affairs on their activities.
 
Today, they offer valuable information on the nature of the political, social and economic activities of the time.
 
The advent of new technologies in the late 19th century -- especially the typewriter -- and the invention of the vertical filing cabinet, introduced new ways of producing documents and providing for their storage.
 
This is indicative of the “paperization” of the office in the early 20th century.
 
The way to manage documentation became codified through rules and procedures in a series of administrative manuals.
 
Yet we also know that the technological constraints and the bureaucratic environment of that day limited the production and distribution of authoritative and authentic government information.
 
In 1912, the government examined the condition of its public records via a Royal Commission chaired by Sir Joseph Pope.
 
The Commissioners were able to determine that the complete extent of government’s business records and administrative files consisted of 1.6 million cubic feet, occupying over 438 rooms, and 92,872 drawers.
 
The total length of the shelving represented some 25 linear miles.
 
This was probably the last time that the Canadian Government was able to make such a precise estimate.
 
Today, with the use of electronic documents and email to conduct business, substantial amounts of information may never exist in paper form. 
 
As I have mentioned, the governance of modern states is dependent on a continuous and utilitarian documentary presence.
 
In order for this documentation production to also frame the nature of our political, social and economic spheres, we need to be able to make sense out of it.
 
These notions introduce the second theme of my presentation. 
 
Let’s see now how the new social behaviors and transformations of the digital age affect the methods supporting the production of the state’s documentary presence.
 
Managing “born digital” information has become one of “the” main issues for most departments.
 
It is also known that the production of digital information within society has outstripped its capacity to store and manage it.
 
We are in the midst of what some observers have been calling an “exaflood” of exabytes, a digital phenomenon that is overwhelming our information management capacity.
 
Further, with the increase in the number of ways to communicate, the need for relevant information becomes even more important.
 
This information should also be readily available.
 
And today, the places and spaces where decisions are being influenced may be outside of our traditional mechanisms and paper-based references.
 
For instance, we can quickly obtain “facts” from Wikipedia and other social media tools.
 
This new way of finding information cannot be ignored.  And a fundamental question remains: how does one assess if the information found on the Internet is accurate?
 
Society has become for the most part self-documenting.
 
As has often been mentioned, we have more information being created that at any other previous time in history.
 
But I am suggesting that most of this information has very little historical or enduring value for Canadians over time.
 
Its use is temporary and transitory, confined to satisfying immediate requirements.
 
The main questions become, therefore: How do we determine what has value? What information needs to be retained?
 
These questions remain central for public memory institutions such as Library and Archives Canada.
 
Changes in how people communicate using digital technology are provoking substantive transformations in how individuals within government create and manage information.
 
In the latter part of the 20th century, photocopying technology revolutionized how employees and citizens could obtain official documents.
 
This is important, since we now must ask ourselves: what is the nature of official documentation?
 
This is not a simple task.
 
Consider this question with regard to litigation or government inquiries, such as the Gomery Commission.
 
Where does one find the essential official records produced during the course of the documentary production phase?
 
Are they always in the care and control of government institutions?
 
Or, can they be found disseminated through a much larger segment of the population?
 
Have they been left in the care of a third party?
 
Can you still access them?
 
In a purely analogue age, this documented discovery made sense.
 
We knew where the information was being created, transmitted, managed and stored.
 
For instance, most of the authoritative records documenting the historical events of interest to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on aboriginal residential schools can be found in both government and religious archives.
 
These collections reveal documentation of a religious and individual nature, such as baptismal and marriage registers, annual reports, and minutes of committees.
 
And the rise of mass information and communications technology raises more complex questions.
 
Simply put, do we know where information is being created, and if so, by whom?
 
Where is it found?
 
Can it be authenticated, preserved, and made accessible now and in the future?
 
This is crucial because fundamentally, new social behaviors are emerging from the use of new technologies.
 
But we are just beginning to map out its impact on our way of conducting business.
 
This is especially important given its impact on the administration of the state.
 
Beginning in the late 1980s, the Canadian public service gradually entered a major phase of computer-based automation.
 
This was the period where desktop computers became part of almost every segment of activity in government organizations.
 
This was also a transformative era within public administration.
 
The traditional issues associated with accepting responsibility for decision-making began to resurface in new conceptions of public administration.
 
We now know that there were some critical misunderstandings about the impacts of introducing computer-based automation.
 
In my view, it automated the command and control environment of the traditional bureaucracy in a more efficient way.
 
The gradual introduction of networked computing in the 1980s also introduced a new variable into traditional workflows.
 
New expectations of rapidly available information and findability emerged.
 
These expectations were made possible by the newfound inter-connectedness of personal computers.
 
In addition, new social behaviours arose.
 
And these behaviours did not displace, nor render the old institutional norms obsolete.
 
Rather, they added upon what was already there.
 
This allowed for information to transit across workgroups more rapidly.
 
Moreover, the connectivity of the workplace environment was no longer centred in a physical location.
 
People could work from home and still maintain a sense of connectedness with the larger office environment.
 
However, by the first decade of the 21st century, the rise of the Internet accelerated these expectations and changes in social behaviour.
 
In the words of University of Toronto Professor Barry Wellman, we now have a sense of networked individualism, where “it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighbourhood, and not the social group.”
 
I say networked since, much like computer systems with their rule-based programs, societies are being defined by structured relationships between individuals.
 
People now search and find so-called ‘public’ information outside of government’s corporate control.
How many of you now “Google” for information?
 
Yet, is this information authoritative and relevant to what you are seeking?
 
Almost anyone can publish information on the Web. Where do we obtain the authoritative version of a given story?
 
How do we identify the dominant voice in this story?
 
More importantly, and to me this is a critical question: is every story worth remembering?
 
The concepts of authenticity and authority are changing with regard to born-digital information.
 
These changes, of course, have broad implications for the society in which we live, including impacts and effects on our public administration.
 
In this context, I must also remind you that “digitized” does not equal “digital.”
 
Information that has been digitized simply means that a digital copy of a physical information resource has been created.
 
It is similar to the old concept of a microfilm or a photocopy.
 
When I say digital, I mean a process of documentary production manifested through our experiences within the moment and context of information resource creation.
 
I am also referring to its dissemination, its format, its context of reading, its preservation, and its access.
 
In this process, the social behaviours related to how we create information, where we create it, how we share it, and how we dispose of it become absolutely crucial.
 
Dynamic web publishing technology allows the same content to be repurposed as a blog entry, or an article on a website.
 
It even allows comments from readers, thereby allowing the reader to be more interactive with the story.
 
It also engages the reader who in turn can modify the content, like Wikipedia entries.
 
This has fundamental effects on the way we are organized and how we function as a society.
 
I hope we now have a better understanding of how new social behaviors and transformations of the digital age affect the methods supporting the production of the state’s documentary presence.
 
Let’s now turn to the need for formal rules to establish the business value of information and some initiatives LAC is putting forward to support departments.
 
I would also highlight some initiatives LAC is putting forward to support departments.
 
This is the third theme I would like to raise with you today.
 
As government departments, we should be focusing our investments almost exclusively on the strategic business assets that facilitate decision making and the efficient delivery of government programs.
 
We must have an established and continuous documentary presence that provides for administrative transparency, accountability and stewardship.
 
This means that departments should only be investing in and managing information that has business value for the purposes of public administration.   In turn, LAC is responsible for the identification of information resources of enduring or historical value.
 
And this would also need to satisfy any requirements related to audit, review and litigation.
 
This is of critical and fundamental importance.
 
At Library and Archives Canada, much of our work supports government departments in preparing for the digital age.
 
Let me share with you three projects in this area.
 
First, we have created a seamless point of contact for federal government institutions to obtain information, tools and advice on recordkeeping.
 
The Recordkeeping Portal provides direct access to various recordkeeping support tools and professional experts.
 
One of those support tools is the Generic Valuation Tool.
 
It assists information professionals in identifying information of business value and setting retention specifications within the context of common business activities.
 
Second, we have streamlined our disposition and recordkeeping program.
 
Our objective is to effectively deliver disposition authorities, while aligning it with larger government-wide recordkeeping initiatives.
 
This will allow departments to effectively manage their information and align with the requirements as set out in Treasury Board Secretariat’s Directive on Recordkeeping.
 
Third, we are implementing a Digital Office project in collaboration with the Treasury Board Secretariat.
 
The Digital Office will facilitate compliance with recordkeeping standards through the use of user-friendly tools.
 
This project offers the advantages of easy access to comprehensive information, reduced printing and storage costs, and allows broader and more efficient public access to content.
 
It will also ensure that departments have the necessary tools and support to implement a sound recordkeeping regime.
 
These are some of the initiatives LAC is putting forward to support departments in establishing formal rules to identify and manage information of business value.
 
This will help the Government of Canada to adapt to and take advantage of the digital revolution.
In closing, I would like to suggest that several underlying assumptions regarding public sector information have undergone a transformation since the onset of the digital age.
 
Effectively, our notions of authenticity and authority have been transformed in the digital world, and so too have our expectations for access, discoverability, and preservation.
 
For government and non-governmental organizations, these transformations provide an opportunity to adapt to a new environment, or in the words of Marshall McLuhan, to engage with the “blitz and metamorphosis” of a new era.
 
The opportunity really presents itself when we begin to rethink how we apply our traditional practices in the ongoing transition from analogue to digital.
 
Our principles need to be revisited and adapted to this networked digital age.
 
In fact, some of our previous social behaviors and conventions may no longer be transferable to this new environment. They are simply no longer useful or relevant.
 
So we must always be open to change.
 
That being said, we cannot simply implement new methods for the sake of change.
 
We must continuously develop or revisit our foundational principles to ensure that whatever adaptations we choose to undertake, they will be done to advance our core mandates.
 
Furthermore, no one can succeed unilaterally.
 
Collaboration is essential for all government institutions to engage in further understanding how we create, produce, use, distribute and preserve public sector information.
 
Thank you.
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