Check-up: Exposing the problems with government recordkeeping, or covering them up?

In a little over three months' time, the final mandatory Check-up submission will be sent by departments and agencies to the National Archives of Australia for collation and reporting to the Minister.

These Check-up surveys benchmark agencies against the minimum recordkeeping requirements they must achieve by 2015 to be compliant with the Digital Transition Policy. This digital transition requires a majority of records in agencies to be handled electronically, with a minimum of new paper records created.

The surveys are worthy, but flawed. The chief problem of Check-up is that it is a self-reporting tool. This encourages, shall we say, "optimistic" reporting of progress which hides the true complexity of the recordkeeping problem emerging. The process, undertaken with the best of intentions, goes something like this:

  • a low-level officer or manager completes the initial survey based, more or less, on the actual state of affairs
  • their manager reviews the survey results and revises some response to put a slightly more positive spin on the more glaring areas of non-compliance
  • this review and revision process is repeated up the hierarchy until it gets to the CEO, by which stage anything even slightly critical of the agency's processes has been whitewashed to invisibility
  • the CEO signs off the report, blissfully unaware of the messiness that underlies the confident assertions in the survey

Note that I'm not suggesting inaccuracy, technically. But there's a huge grey area in any survey that effectively allows the answer "mostly compliant". Does that mean 51% compliant or 90% compliant?

The problem is that to achieve the efficiency promised by online services and other electronic information systems, recordkeeping can't remain as a parallel or separate process. Some products, like RecordPoint, try to address this by making recordkeeping transparent to collaboration and process management. But this is still just a partial solution at best.

Without integrated, zero-effort recordkeeping across all processes, the choice for staff will be clear: achieve your KPIs or make the extra effort for compliant for no apparent gain. It doesn't take Nostradamus to forecast the outcome of that scenario.

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