Speaking Notes for the National Archivist
Making Information and Knowledge a Public Resource
The Crossing Boundaries National Conference
May 8, 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning and welcome to Day Two of the conference
Crossing Boundaries is making a major contribution to our understanding of governance in a changing world. The rise of new information and communication technologies, globalization, changing demographics and other forces are transforming the world economy and shaping a global e-society. In the public sector, these forces are affecting the way government is structured, how it functions and how it serves its stakeholders and the public. The prospect of e-government and e-democracy is altering the very way we define governance and the relationship between citizens and the state.
We have been told that we are now living in the Knowledge Age. If this is really true, it must mean that we successfully traversed the Information Age and have navigated past the Age of Mis-information, the Age of Too-Much-Information and the Age of Too-Little-Information-Because-Nobody-Kept-the-Records. Some people with great powers of understanding have even been able to skip Information entirely and go directly to Certain Knowledge. We are now closer to the heart of the matter. Knowledge is in abundant supply and guides all of our decisions and actions. In government, the Auditor General and Information Commissioner now have little to complain about. Question Period in Parliament has returned to its Socratic roots.
For all of this, we can thank the incredible advances in digital technologies which have transformed the way we live, work and spend what little leisure time we have. We now know that Bill Gates and the Internet can provide us with instant knowledge on every subject, and answers to every need. In the age of e-everything, we have e-commerce, e-learning, and even e-relationships. All of this takes a huge load off of my e-shoulders. I can stop wondering if the future will really be robust, scalable and user-friendly. As National Archivist, I can stop worrying about how to preserve our recorded memory in a rapidly changing technology environment. And, perhaps most important, I can dismiss the false notion that although all of the decisions we must make are about the future, all of the knowledge we possess stems from the past.
In this enlightened era, we have been encouraged to associate knowledge creation and sharing with computer-based technologies that make possible the rapid exchange of information and data. Instant communication, however, is not instant knowledge. What transforms data into information and information into knowledge are context, observation, analysis and constant assessment. These are difficult activities, even with the newest version of Windows. Although we may have a great deal of information and data, I suspect that knowledge remains in short supply. Perhaps we should be thankful that we are not yet living in the Age of Wisdom. I'm not sure I could handle that, given that I still struggle to program my VCR.
There is further evidence to support a cautious, if not sceptical view of the Knowledge Age. In a well-known study by Reuters, more than half of workers surveyed felt unable to cope with the volume of information they were bombarded with, and were worried about making poor decisions in spite of all the information available.i Another study found that 67 percent of managers interviewed said they wanted to share information and knowledge, but did not have the time. Sixty-two percent said they weren't even using the available technologies to share knowledge effectively. Half said they had difficulty finding information (I suspect the other half were lying.)ii
While workers are being overwhelmed in the office and at the desktop, they are being asked to adjust to wider changes occuring around them. Traditional departments, processes and the professions associated with them are proving inadequate in dealing with the complex, interconnected problems of government and society. In a more educated, interconnected and information-rich society, the once-clear boundaries that separated the structure, functions and authority of government from other traditional institutions are becoming blurred. The walls within and around government are porous to information. The Internet and other communications technologies allow citizens and a variety of interest groups to readily access and exchange information about public matters, take issue with bureaucrats and politicians, protest, and otherwise attempt to participate in their governance in ways that were impossible before. Writer Donald Kettl observed that increasing access to information is levelling power within government and power over government and that this is leading to "the twilight of hierarchy."iii Or in the words of a prominent 20th century philosopher, Yogi Berra: "The future isn't what it used to be."
If we are to take advantage of the new opportunities that the e-world presents, we must first face the realities of the political and bureaucratic environment. We need to recognize that in spite of pressures exerted on this environment, change occurs slowly. We need to understand that it is often the most critical area requiring change that is the most likely to resist it. And we need to be practical in suggesting solutions, keeping in mind that, from the manager's point of view, the greatest problems are not enough staff, not enough time, too many meetings and far too many emails.
My many years in the public service tell me that, in terms of hierarchy, "twilight" can last a very long time (and that hierarchy isn't always a bad thing). While technology makes it feasible to revolutionize the way government is structured, and the way it functions and interacts with others (and having had this capability for some time), it does not mean that a revolution is taking place, except in the promotional literature of IT vendors. Change within large organizations and particularly in complex government organizations is incremental and evolutionary, despite the rhetoric of the Knowledge Age and the best efforts of political leaders and dedicated public service empolyees.
Clearly, the need to change how government functions internally and interacts with others is essential. Much of society already believes government has lost its credibility and authority. Evidence to this effect lies in a historical decline in the proportion of citizens who trust government to "do the right thing", who choose a career in the public service, who participate in elections and who join traditional political parties. These trends are occurring not only in Canada, but in other developed countries as well. In spite of new technology and shifting paradigms, people do not yet feel they have a real "voice" in their governance.
Faced with such challenges, there is growing pressure on governments in all jurisdictions to create business and communications models that are more efficient, effective and citizen-centred. The Internet and related technologies are providing tools that enable this to happen. In the federal government, Government On-Line provides the model for integrated and conveniently accessible electronic service delivery. In studies conducted by Accenture and the Bertelsmann Foundation, Canada's rating is at the top for countries that use the digital domain to provide information and services.iv
Improving citizen trust and participation in government, however, calls for more fundamental change in the way government manages its resources, defines its accountability frameworks and rewards behaviour.v I believe the change that is needed is 5 percent technological, 20 percent managerial and 75 percent cultural.
We need to shift from satisfying internal objectives to focusing on citizen and user needs; from command-control management styles to shared decision-making; from a focus on structure and process to a focus on relationships and results; from risk aversion to risk management; from collecting evidence (and then ignoring it) to using it to make informed decisions; from knowledge hoarding to knowledge sharing; and from managing information as a waste product of administration to treating it as a valuable public resource. This is a major paradigm shift.
Achieving such change is difficult and complex, but it is possible and it is occurring. The Information Commissioner of Canada said that management cultures change when they are under pressure. Pressures include: public and media scrutiny and their demands for openness and accountability, including the clarification of the legal, financial and political risks involved; the evidence that shows the positive impact of effective laws and standards in contrast to the effect of those that are ineffective; and the ongoing need for recognition and reward of good performance.vi Requirements for change include strong political and senior management leadership and vision, a willingness to admit error and a desire to learn from it. Like Yogi Berra, we don't want to make the "wrong mistake."
This shift also requires fundamental changes in how we value, manage and use information or, to apply the title of this conference session, how we make it a truly public resource.
Making information a public resource means more than increasing its accessibility. It means embedding within public service values and codes a fundamental commitment to keep complete and accurate records of important government decisions and activities. It means ensuring that up-to-date and reliable information is shared and used to address vital public policy issues. It means using existing tools and techniques as well as new resources to build effective two-way communication and mutually beneficial commitments among governments, citizens, and stakeholders. It means systematically managing and protecting our current information holdings over their life cycle as part of our public stewardship mandate. And it means preserving and using the legacy of knowledge that we inherited from the past.
Treating information as a public resource starts with understanding and appreciating its value to society and to governance. Try to imagine a society without its records of birth and citizenship, of property ownership, of rights and benefits, of public health, of law and justice, of treaties and agreements, of society's achievements or of its many mistakes. Without them, how could we deal with SARS or AIDS, protect the security of Canadians, or make even the most mundane decisions in government? Yet we take this information for granted most of the time.
Also, imagine trying to reconstruct a stable government in Iraq without essential records, many of which were lost. For that matter, try to reconstruct the history of western civilization without the ancient manuscripts and artifacts that were destroyed or looted while Coalition forces were guarding the Iraqi Ministry of Oil.
The federal government has developed an excellent Integrated Management Framework.vii At its centre are key commitments that include citizen-centred service, adherence to values and ethics, a focus on results, responsible spending and clear accountability. Every aspect of the Framework is information-dependent and effective records and information management systems are essential to implement it. Why do we assume the records and data will be there when we need them, when we give little attention and few resources to their management?
Records management is erroneously considered one of the lowliest of administrative functions. Its ranks were being decimated, even as new and complex electronic information systems were overwhelming government departments. Haven't we learned that the techno-bells, whistles and hyperlinks are useless if the information is not available, accessible, up-to-date and reliable? Did we understand that Y2K was really an information management issue, not a technological problem? Program managers and technology specialists failed to communicate with each other about the need to protect important information over time.
Organizations manage what they value. Federal departments are implementing modern comptrollership systems for the management of resources. As part of these efforts, we have been rigorously assigning monetary values to all of our assets. Under this system, our PCs, servers and the wires that connect them have been assigned substantial value. On the other hand, our information assets and intellectual capital, which are arguably the government's most valuable resources in the 21st century, have been assigned a value of precisely zero.
Creating, sharing and using knowledge to improve governance is surely our goal, yet attempting to "manage" knowledge without valuing and managing the information from which it comes is like trying to run before you can walk. Information management is the weak link in e-government.
We are beginning to understand this and do something about it. The Chief Information Officer Branch of Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat is providing strong overall leadership on information management. In collaboration with others, it has developed an excellent new Management of Government Information policy. MGI came into effect on May 1st and requires federal government institutions to manage their information as a public trust on behalf of Canadians. It provides direction on how they should create, use, and preserve information to fulfill their mandates, support program and service delivery, achieve strategic priorities and meet accountability obligations. MGI requires departments to provide the necessary leadership and resources to implement the new policy.
MGI is much more than a records management policy. It speaks to objectives central to the Crossing Boundaries agenda: more transparent and responsive e-government, greater information access and sharing, integrated programs and collaborative service delivery.
The success of the new policy will depend on strong leadership and the availability of effective IM standards, guidelines, tools, training and professional development. I am particularly pleased that the Library and Archives of Canada is playing an important role in putting this infrastructure in place. It leads the way for information management in the Government of Canada, collaborating closely with Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and other departments. I have been designated as one of two "IM Champions" in the government (apparently despite my difficulty in programming my VCR).
In February, we sponsored a symposium on "Achieving Excellence in Information Management," for 245 senior government staff. The objectives were to raise awareness among senior executives, recognize IM achievements and strengthen the government's IM community. A survey taken at the Symposium confirmed that many managers know they need to improve their information management programs and practices. They said that the two biggest barriers were a lack of strong departmental IM leadership and the existing organizational culture. At the end of the event, more than 80 percent of those who attended said they were committed to building stronger IM programs in their departments. "Leading By Example" awards were made to ten federal departments that had recently undertaken important IM initiatives. Each of these ten winners has shared and will continue to share results and lessons learned with their colleagues across the government.
The Library and Archives of Canada has also developed and disseminated useful tools and roadmaps for identifying the value of IM, assessing current IM programs and improving their various aspects. We prepared a model Case for Action that defines information management and describes its benefits, the risks of inaction and how we are lagging behind other governments and the private sector in this area. We developed a new tool and methodology to help departments assess their IM programs. The Information Management Capacity Check (IMCC) enables them to establish a baseline in six key areas and determine what steps they should take to improve IM. The government has endorsed this Capacity Check for use by all departments.
Other projects are addressing specific needs in managing the information life cycle. We are developing a government-wide records classification model for common administrative functions. We have established recommended retention periods for administrative records. We are updating the Records Disposition Authorities, which enable departments to dispose of their electronic and paper records when no longer needed. We are helping departments to dispose of huge backlogs of paper records. We are preparing plain-language, web-based Records and Information Management guidance specifically for Deputy Ministers. We are developing a strategy for managing and archiving e-records. We have disseminated new guidelines for the management of government publications. We are also contributing to Chief Information Officer (CIO) Branch efforts to redefine and revitalize the professional information management community in the e-government environment.
The success of these joint efforts produced significant incremental change and reflected their timeliness. Our pilot projects also demonstrate that the information management needs of different departments vary. There is no simple solution or technological silver bullet to meet these needs; we can only accomplish our goals through hard work, adequate training and a sufficient workforce.
We will have to invest more time, effort and resources, and we are already slowly strengthening the way the government creates, manages and uses what a recent study by the Public Policy Forum calls the "defining resource"viii of governance. By working together and sharing knowledge, we will also be contributing to the transformation of corporate culture.
Our own government-wide IM role complements the library and archival functions we perform. The Library and Archives of Canada is a new institution, created last fall by bringing together the National Library and the National Archives. Its primary objective is to preserve, provide access to and expand our most important legacy-the accumulated knowledge of Canadians. That legacy is reflected in our extraordinary collections of published and unpublished materials, in our programs and services, and in the wide knowledge of our staff. The collections include not only the permanent records of successive governments, but records and publications that document the development and diversity of Canadian society-its achievements and its errors. The government records and publications provide an essential basis for understanding how government has dealt with challenges, old and new.
This information is essential for ensuring and assessing government openness, effectiveness and accountability. With increasing demand by Canadians to view this information, the Internet is enabling us to make our collections a truly accessible public resource. Our programs and services are intended to stimulate users to interact, learn and question, as well as to share and use our collective knowledge, while contributing to it.
We need to ask: aren't these the same qualities that define and link good governance and good citizenship? Political leaders, parliamentarians, public service employees and citizens need to interact with and learn from our knowledge-to question, share, add to and use this knowledge-new and old-in order to transform and strengthen democratic institutions and processes. Good governance is more than automating the internal machinery of government and improving services. It is about informed debate and continuing dialogue-the coming together and clashing of issues and ideas, personalities and passions. The e-world provides us with new tools to accomplish this and governments must take advantage of these opportunities. But this knowledge-creating process and its goals remains the same in our technology-driven world as they did in the past, when simple tools, such as quill pens, paper and ink enabled government and society to function and global trade to flourish. If we understand this, then every age is the Knowledge Age.
Thank you very much.
i "Glued to the Screen: An investigation into information addiction worldwide," Reuters, 1997
ii "Dying for Information," Reuters, 1996
iii Donald F. Kettl, "Managing on the Frontiers of Knowledge: The Learning Organization," in New Paradigms For Government, P.W. Ingraham, B.S. Romzek and Associates (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994).
iv The Accenture study does not evaluate the quality of the information and services but the number of key services provided and how conveniently they can be accessed on-line.
v The Centre for Technology in Government (also represented on the panel) has written "the public's vision of e-government extends beyond efficient and high-quality services to a more informed and empowered citizenry and a more accountable government."
vi The Hon. John Reid, P.C., Annual Report, Information Commissioner, 2000-2001, June 2001
vii "Toward Management Excellence (An Integrated Framework of Management Expectations)," Treasury Board Secretariat, 2003
viii Andrew Lipchak, "Information Management to Support Evidence-based Governance in the Electronic Age," Public Policy Forum, November 2002