Electronic Records Management in Government Settings: Issues and Perspectives

By Mica Wickramasekara

MLIS Capping Exercise

March 15, 2003

What is an Electronic Record?
Significance of Electronic Records
Issues Facing Record Managers/archivists
Key Tactics
New Responsibilities for Record Managers
Work Cited

Managing information in electronic form to ensure its availability for future use by a broad spectrum of users-including records creators, historians, social scientists, genealogists, journalists, lawyers, and private citizens—is the most significant and difficult challenge currently confronting the archival community

(National Historical Publications & Records Commission, 1990).


    In the fast moving world of today, information has become increasingly critical to the continuing success of organizations, whether they are big or small, government, or private. New information technologies from mainframes, to PCs, to local area networks and the Internet have changed the way organizations create, use, disseminate, and store information. Information therefore can be considered as a vital resource. Changing methods of creating, capturing, editing, maintaining, transmitting, retrieving, and storing records have made an increase in the volume of electronically created information. While the use of paper has not disappeared, many government organizations of today rely increasingly on various electronic formats as the primary means to conduct their day-to-day business. Complex records may be composed of multiple computer files stored in multiple locations across the computing environment. The rapid development of technology represents an enormous burden on how governments at all levels organize their records management activities and operate. Experts say that the toughest challenge for record managers, as well as archivists, is to move beyond their traditional roles and to address new technologies, new practices, and concepts. The purpose of my paper is to highlight some major challenges people have to encounter in managing electronic records in government settings, and also to discuss some possible solutions and guidelines brought forward by experts in this field.

What is an Electronic Record?

    There has been a tremendous need to address the definition of the term electronic record. A record should be viewed as being an all-inclusive term that encompasses every conceivable way that information, including data, text, image or sound can be created, stored, and retrieved electronically. Recently more and more government bodies have included a definition of some sort into their legislative documents to identify electronic records. Following are some of the examples of definitions used by some government organizations.

Electronic records include:

· Electronic documents such as word-processed documents, email, web pages, graphs, digital photographs, and scanned images, and electronic data such as information stored in databases. (FOIP Guidelines, Government of Alberta, chapter 8, 2000)

· Record means: "any record of information however recorded whether in a printed form, or film, by electronic means or otherwise, and includes: correspondence, a memorandum, a book, a plan, a map, a drawing, a diagram, a pictorial or graphic work" (Section 2(1) of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act of Ontario)

    The use of email is widespread in all levels of governments. However, government employees may not always consider email to constitute a record, since this form of communication may seem transitory, personal, or unimportant. Electronic messages, that document communications related to a department’s policies, mandates, or functions should be considered to be records for the purposes of ‘Freedom of Information Legislation.’

Significance of Electronic Records as Public Records

   The increasing use of computers and other electronic media to capture, store, and distribute public information presents a myriad of challenges to all levels of governments. Recorded documentation is essential in managing large organizations because these organizations have to be accountable for their actions. And to prove the accountability, administrators require access to records. In the government sector, the public record serves this duty by documenting policies and decisions of public officials by storing the information needed to conduct official duties. Furthermore, the records act as a liaison between the government services and information about the rights and obligations of citizens.

    The public record is changing as a result of the rapid automation of record keeping and the growing sophistication of electronic information systems, say Hedstrom (1990, p2). The physical characteristics of electronic records and the complex processes used to create records affect people who create, maintain, and use public records. The transition to electronic record keeping poses particular challenges for record managers who are responsible for ensuring that records are maintained and protected as long as they have value. The FOIP Guidelines and Practices Document (2000), issued by the government of Alberta’s Freedom and Protection of Privacy Office, is one of the examples of a government initiative towards better management of public documents in electronic format. According to this guide, electronic records are subject to the FOIP Act and should be managed as part of any program for the management of recorded information.  Benefits of electronic records include the fact that they: allow simultaneous access by multiple users, provide for faster access and retrieval, enable access from remote locations, require less storage space than paper. Some even say that it reduces the need for paper (which is debatable).

Issues Facing Record Managers/Archivists

   According to the International Council of Archivists, the growth of networking and the development of electronic transactions have made the record managers/archivists concerned about the long-term preservation of electronic records. They claim that these new archival concerns arise out of both the capabilities of the new technologies and the ways in which these technologies are being used in organizations (1997, p.4). It is obvious that organizations are rapidly working towards a situation in which electronic records become the most complete evidence of the business process, and paper copies begin to function as convenience copies.

    Hedstrom and others state that digitally recorded information is inherently at risk as a consequence of several interrelated factors. They argue that, when the nature of record-keeping changes, governments have to review, revise, and adopt new policies to protect the public records and garner maximum utility from the information they contain. Moreover, they challenge the government authorities for not responding adequately to the concerns of managing electronic records.

The following could be named as key factors in dealing with electronic records:

· security,

· authenticity,

· integrity, and

· accessibility.

    Electronic records are easier to manipulate than paper records.  Record management practitioners are struggling to overcome the need to provide security to allow adequate access to the records while protecting the records from alteration. This is a big challenge when it comes to digital signatures. Heather MacNeil points out that an authentic record is one that can be proven to be what it claims to be, and free of falsification or inappropriate modification. She argues that proving the authenticity of a record then implies the need to preserve its identity and integrity over time (2001, p 51-3). If an organization wants to use electronic records as evidence in a court proceeding or convince an auditor of its financial position, it must have created electronic records that are both reliable and authentic say Arp and Dickman (2002, p. 36). What all this implies is that electronic records must be created reliably and maintained authentically. Furthermore, reliability is the measure of a record’s authority and is a function of the record’s creation.

     Electronic records can be viewed online and most of the time viewers do not require visits to a public reading room or a records centre. Experts say, that in such an environment there should be controls to ensure the integrity of records, and also security for other readers. Another important issue is to maintain the protection of personal privacy and other inappropriate disclosures. All these issues have to be resolved by the government bodies creating public records.

    Electronic records are system dependent and the information resides on fragile storage media, and therefore electronic data can be easily manipulated. Moreover, unlike paper records or microfilm, information stored in electronic form is more vulnerable to loss or damage than paper.

    Another problem organizations today must face in this area is the constant struggle to keep up to date with new media formats and technologies. An organization that does not stay current with the latest file formatting conventions, and machines will soon find its archival data has become useless and unreachable. Subsequently, the level of complexity of computer and telecommunications technologies and the rapid introduction of new computer applications to the markets have increased this problem. Migration strategies for continued access for the life of the records, system and software changes render files unreadable. New products and services are introduced at a startling pace, and therefore older products and services have to be regularly withdrawn or discontinued. Information technology experts argue that technology is changing so rapidly that a five to ten year time frame is the maximum life of any digital technology. Hardware and software can become obsolete so fast. These market driven technologies place a constant burden on record managers.

    Springer (2001, p.14), states that issues arise because electronic records are so easy to create, copy, and distribute, while at the same time most government organisations have few, if any, policies in place for naming electronic files, handling removable media such as diskettes, and applying retention periods to electronic records.

    In addition, the management aspect of electronic records is not generally recognized as a records management function in the traditional records management environment. In most situations, records managers are not involved in managing electronic records that reside on large mainframe or other centrally administered systems. Saffady (1992, p.2-14), claims that this is regarded as primarily the responsibility of computer specialists.

Key Tactics

   Tom Wright (1997), in his report on the electronic record, lists some principles as suggested practices for those government departments beginning the process of dealing with electronic records. He says that organizations should take into account their own particular circumstances when adopting his principles. His principles are to:

· define the meaning of an electronic record,

· consider email as records,

· review existing policies,

· consider options,

· take system management into consideration,

· get IT help,

· include strategy for preservation of information, and

· enhance the quality of electronic records if ‘contextual’ information that allows the original purpose or context of a record to be determined becomes part of the records management system.

    To maintain an effective electronic records management program, it is important for government organizations to determine whether the records that are being created electronically do in fact record these activities accurately and completely. Forming a team consisting of system specialists, record managers, librarians, archivists, and program mangers probably represents the most effective way to undertake this type of investigation and to later develop a workable records management strategy. The inputs from the team could then lead to develop workable program documentation and records management strategies. Numerous records management experts suggest that a successful future for records management requires a much closer relationship between record managers and computer system specialists. The review should include the proper management of all forms of records irrespective of the way in which they are stored, such as electronically, on paper, on magnetic tapes, or microform alike. In determining what records need to be created and retained, government departments should take into account various statutes, regulations, and policies that require documentation for accountability purposes, or as evidence of decisions taken.

    Record managers should pay serious consideration to integrate the management of paper and electronic records for better usage and preservation. An integrated paper and electronic system would entail ensuring that records in paper and electronic format were carried over to the electronic filing system. Many analysts say that these are increasingly powerful records management and document management systems that can assist in their integration.

    When ministries/departments consider designing and/or upgrading information systems or software applications, they should carefully consider the ongoing records management needs. These include ensuring ongoing accessibility of information and its prompt disposal when no longer required. According to Lange (2002 p.44), organizations need to develop and implement thorough and thoughtful electronic document retention policies. He adds that a retention policy should include a method for determining retention periods, schedules and procedures for naming a records custodian. It is quite evident that government organizations must retain all relevant documents when it knows, or should have reason to know, that they will become material at some point in the future. Experts say that unless records management needs are addressed in detail, it is unlikely that they will be incorporated effectively into new systems.

    Government organizations should incorporate in their analysis of options the access and retention capabilities of the technology they plan to purchase. The technology, both software and hardware, should be capable of providing easy storage and quick retrieval of data and information. Records managers should work hand in hand with Systems Development personnel at the initial stages to address system development issues and they should also co-operate with technical and legal staff, head librarians, and discuss issues related to the systems. By implementing technical security measures, the records will be safeguarded against tampering of any sort. Technical security can be implemented by allowing access to data by authorized people only. Firewalls, intrusion detection software, encryption, digital signatures, and password ID tokens could be used to further protect the access to records by unauthorized person/s.

    One of the disadvantages of electronic records is that they are subject to deterioration over time, in some cases in just a few years, usually the magnetic disks. This problem has not been rectified as yet, but certain steps can be taken to ensure that the information these records hold is preserved for longer periods of time. They need to be retrievable and usable over the information’s ‘life cycle’ from creation to final disposition. Some analysts say the use of CD-ROM technology may provide greater capability in this area. It is very important to periodically migrate electronic records to new tapes or disks before decomposition sets in, or, if appropriate, to new technologies. Maintaining the ability to process electronic records involves reformatting, copying, and conversion activities. In contrast, migration involves the transfer of electronic records that can only be read and correctly interpreted by legacy computer hardware and software to a new technology platform. Dollar (1999, chap.2), indicates that this transfer requires the design of gateways from the legacy system to the new technology platform and the writing of special purpose codes or programs to transfer the records and the software functionality. Typically, the migration of electronic records involves several complex issues. Many gurus in this field say that the migration process is very costly, and requires expert manpower, and requires more time to complete the entire process. Moreover, these systems will require functionality for the automatic migration of documents and data, Stephen and Wallace (1997 p, ii). 

    In an electronic environment, a record may consist only of its text or data contents without its author being identified. The information is key to preserving the record’s value as ‘evidence’, whether for legal or more standard operational reasons. In the opinion of many observers, electronic records scheduling is not heavily practised, because methodologies are not in place as yet. Stephen and Wallace (1997) have come up with six major benefits that records managers can gain by implementing an electronic records retention program. The benefits are:

· reducing an organization’s legal exposure,

· establishing control overgrowth of electronic records,

· making more efficient use of computer resources,

· reducing data storage costs,

· ensuring full compliance with records retention laws and regulations, and

· ensuring the preservation or electronic records of archival value.

    Records managers should establish policies or ensure that existing policies are amended to include a record-keeping perspective. Policy needs to be supported and authorized by senior management in order to foster an organization wide commitment to its implement and the development of necessary procedures and guidelines. In addition, the implementation of the policies needs to be supported by guidance, education and training.

    The government of Alberta’s electronic document on Guidelines and Practices-Records and Information Management (2000, chapter 8), has outlined special rules for the management of electronic records within Alberta government departments and agencies. The rules are that:

· individual records are uniquely identified,

· contextual data, or metadata, relating to the specific record or transaction is preserved (this may consist of, for example; date, subject, names of correspondents or participants),

· records can be authenticated,

· there is version control,

· records are classified and indexed for retrieval,

· there are access controls, and

· there are controls over the alteration of records, including audit trails on use, as well as processes in place to permit the disposal of obsolete records under approved processes and schedule.

    An electronic records system should address the effective management, retention and disposal of email. If there is not an adequate electronic record-keeping system in place, the policy should require records to be printed and managed as part of the record keeping system applied to hard copy records.

    Many gurus in the field agree that responsibility for the creation, management and storage of electronic data as records is shared between the people who create electronic messages, those who manage government information and records, and those who manage the technology that transmits and stores electronic data. Those who should be included in this category include: users of electronic data systems, record managers, information managers including head librarians, archivists, system administrators and chief executives of public offices. Record managers need to work towards ensuring all areas of responsibility are determined and approximately assigned. Formal assignment of responsibility is recognized as an important part in record-keeping best practice in many government standards.

New Responsibilities for Record Managers

   In the wake of these changes in the records management field, the managers too need to adopt a new vision in their roles. According to Menkus (1996, p.36), on the professional level, managers will have to re-educate themselves with information processing systems application analysis and design, telecommunication networking, information system security and auditing, and design multi media products. He states further that there may be a need to think of creating some sort of electronic records manager program within the framework of the existing professional certification in records management.  Also, in order to move organizations forward with electronic record keeping initiatives, records management personnel will have to upgrade themselves with new skills and necessary training. New position titles such as E-Records Analyst have been added to the employment market recently. This implies that there is a new demand for a different set of records management people in the market driven economy. Record managers have to learn the roles and responsibilities of technological environment in which they operate, and understand how records management organizations must change to facilitate the management of electronic record keeping. Moreover, they have to understand how they fit within the new role of record managers as strategic information mangers.

    Managing and maintaining electronic records requires standards and advice from record management experts; particularly in ensuring that disposal is properly authorized. Stephen and Wallace (1997, p.18), argue that records management specialists have the strongest professional incentives to advocate electronic records management. Fanning’s (2002 p.61) advice to record managers is to consult the international standards, such as ISO 15489, Information and Documentation-Records Management. The multi part standard standardizes records policies and procedures to ensure that the appropriate attention and protection is given to all records. However, the fact that records management discipline has not presented a viable solution to information systems or information technology communities is seen by many as failure of the profession. 


Even if records are retained, sufficient provisions should be made to ensure that records remain readable and retain full value as evidence of decisions or transactions. Record managers should bear in mind that changing technology may render records unreadable, or alter their original structure or appearance as documents or data. The management of recorded electronic information can, therefore, be viewed as being integral to the operation of the government organizations. Based on literature I consulted for this paper, I am convinced that the volatile nature of the platforms which create electronic records require organizations themselves to ensure that records are migrated across systems in ways which ensure the evidential quality of records is kept intact.

Work Cited

Arp, Charles E., and Joseph C. Dickman. 2002. Information preservation: changing roles.

Information Management Journal 36(6): 54-59.

Dollar, Charles M. 1999. Authentic Electronic Records: Strategies for Long Term Access.

Chicago: Cohasset Associates.

Fanning, Betsy. 2002. Records management standards: a starting point. E-Doc 16(5): 60-61.

Government of Alberta. 2000. FOIP Guidelines and Practices: Chapter 8, Records Management

[Internet]. [cited May 28, 2001]. Available from http://gov.ab.ca/foip/guideline_practices/2000/chapter8.cfm.

Hedstrom, Margaret. 1995. Electronic archives: Integrity and access in the network environment

American Archivist 58(summer): 312-24.

---------. 1990. Management and Preservation of Nevada’s Electronic Public Records: A Report

to the Nevada State Historical Records Advisory Board. Nevada: State Library and


International Council on Archives. Committee on Electronic Records. 1997. Guide for Managing

Electronic Records from an Archival Perspective. Paris: The Council.

Lange, Michael C.S. 2002. Document retention policies can help pare legal bills.

Financial Executive 18(9): 43-45.

MacNeil, Heather. 2001. Providing grounds for trust: Developing conceptual requirements for

the long term preservation of authentic electronic records. Archivaria 50: 52-78.

Menkus, Belden. 1996. Defining electronic records management. Records Management

Quarterly 30(January): 38-41.

National Historical Publications and Records Commission. 1990. Electronic Records Issues: A

Report to the Commission. Commission Reports and Papers, No.4. Washington: National

Archives and Records Administration.

Saffady, William. 1992. Managing Electronic Records. Prairie Village, KS; ARMA


Springer, Liz. 2001. The exciting future: electronic records. AALT Technician 28(20): 14-17.

Stephens, David O., and Roderick C. Wallace. 1997. Electronic Records Retention: An

Introduction. Prairie Village, KS: ARMA International.

Wright, Tom. 1997. Electronic Records: Maximizing Best Practices. Toronto, ON: Information

& Privacy Commissioner.

Electronic Records Management in Government Settings: Issues and Perspectives
Last Updated: March 15, 2003
Created by
Mica Wickramasekara for the Course LIS 594 Records Management
Adapted to fulfil LIS 600: Capping Exercise of the MLIS Program.
School of Library and Information Studies
University of Alberta, Canada