Moving into a digital era presents exciting opportunities for public records. Advances in technology are allowing governments to store records at a lower cost and to more easily search through archives. That is just one of several reasons records retention schedules, which dictate how long records should be kept, need to be revisited and updated to reflect the easier management of large amounts of public records. Drawing on the knowledge of clerks, records managers and archivists — the traditional stewards of public records — can help with the transition.
To help ensure success with updating records management systems, there’s a key concern that needs to be addressed: funding. Records managers have to worry about addressing a range of new or increased costs that might come their way with the move from reactive to proactive release of records. Addressing these potential costs in an open data policy can help ensure successful implementation of the initiative. There are a few costs, in particular, that it could be useful to budget for in order to ensure records managers have the resources they need.
Safeguarding sensitive information
One familiar cost that records managers might see increase as a result of a move to proactive release of records is addressing sensitive information. Sometimes, information cannot be released due to privacy concerns or for other reasons. If the potential harm from releasing the information outweighs the public interest in accessing the information, that data should be kept private or redacted from a larger dataset that does pass the balance test for public release.
With the shift to the proactive release of information online, this process can seem like a potentially time-intensive new workload for those who have traditionally taken care of flagging and redacting such information before responding to public records requests.
Metadata might be able to help address the problem. In some cases, metadata could be used to help automatically flag sensitive information so it is not released or can be redacted from a larger dataset. Personally identifiable information in crime data, for example, sometimes exists in common metadata fields like addresses. Redacting information in fields that regularly contain such information could probably be automated.
It could take time for that kind of technical fix to be implemented, however, especially for non-standardized sources of information. In those cases, human review might still be necessary to find and flag problematic elements. Proactive release of information increases the demand and shortens the timeframe for review and redaction. Appropriate funding should be given to the government office charged with flagging and redacting sensitive information so the process doesn’t hold back the proactive release of records.
Making information machine-readable
Another potential cost for records managers comes with converting paper documents for sharing online. Many records are still kept on paper and will need to be digitized before they can be shared online. Allowing for information to be electronically filed is one way to make information digital from the start. Advocates and government officials should consider developing policies requiring the e-filing of forms where possible to reduce costs and improve information timeliness and quality.
For information that was not filed electronically but still needs to be converted to machine-readable format and posted online, governments should provide adequate funding for staff to do this appropriately and efficiently. It is insufficient to simply create non-searchable PDFs from scans of paper documents. For the accessibility and reusability of these documents to be maximized, the information in them must be searchable. This might require training staff and investing in new technology — costs that should be assessed and addressed.
Digitizing and storing archival material
New records are not the only thing that could benefit from being digitized. Digitizing archival material can provide important historical context to current information being released. This could represent a new cost if digitizing archival material is not an activity the government is currently performing. If providing that kind of historical context is valuable to a government, it should provide adequate funding for digitizing records and ensuring their continued preservation. Older or fragile documents can require special handling, and timeframes and budgets that call for digitizing archival material should take these conditions into consideration.
Updating records management practices can make more information available to a wider audience and, ultimately, provide it at a lower cost. However, that doesn’t mean the transition is cost-free. Achieving the full benefits of turning public records into open data involves appropriately addressing the legacy of paper-based records systems. Concerns about the cost and implementation of updating public records systems highlight the need for policies that take these into consideration. Providing adequate funding can help ensure there are enough staff and resources for taking public records into the digital age.
Read more of our recommendations for the transition in our ongoing records management series.