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Finance wants one cloud-based digital document system for the entire APS

The Department of Finance is moving ahead with plans to implement a digital record-keeping platform that will be used across the entire federal government by all public servants, not just records managers.

Finance will soon begin shopping around for ways to “modernise the common function of recordkeeping by taking advantage of new technologies, particularly those that automate the capture and classification of records” according to a position paper published on AusTender.

The purpose is to digitise, as much as possible, the many processes that produce ordinary documents or “unstructured data” every day. But the briefing paper hints that in future, the public service will want to increasingly combine this kind of information with structured databases.

The plan is to roll this out to all non-corporate entities in the Commonwealth, and give corporate entities the option.

Finance wants a platform that will improve the “discoverability” of information assets and information sharing between agencies, reduce duplicated effort across the bureaucracy and make the regular administrative changes demanded by government more efficient.

One feature in particular, automated categorisation, will make all this possible while actually reducing the “manual effort” on the part of regular public servants with no special IT or records management role, Finance believes.

“The APS is keen to move away from the paper paradigm and legacy solutions that fulfil the needs of a records manager, but are not designed for the general user,” the paper advises interested vendors.

The department says “traditional records management practices that require users to undertake electronic filing in a separate records management system are not working” — and it includes a recent internal report on “the user experience of managing records” in the APS along with the position paper to prove the point.

“This results in mismanagement of government information, which poses a risk to government business, e.g. loss of evidentiary material from email and lost productivity or high costs associated with discoverability of poorly managed information,” the paper continues.

“The vision for digital records and information management is one where all members of the APS can find, store and use information easily – where records of value will be categorised, indexed, managed and disposed of in accordance with Australian Government recordkeeping obligations.”

The winning solution is likely to be a cloud-based platform that can “become the basis” for a whole-of-government information management system for ordinary documents, with a range of useful features.

“The solution will use technologies such as cognitive computing, keyword extraction and auto-indexing to ensure that all information is automatically captured and categorised, indexed, managed and disposed of with minimal interaction by the end user.”

User experiences of the current state of play

The user experience report was an attempt to establish a baseline of how public servants feel about the electronic document and records management systems they currently use, such as TRIM. “The overall user experience of EDRMS is negative,” it states.

Prepared by the Canberra office of ThinkPlace, the report’s findings about the current state of affairs, as of last September, will not surprise many public servants:

Usefulness – generally, the value of EDRMS has not been demonstrated to users. EDRMS is the system people use because they ‘have’ to, or they ignore it because use is not mandated and legacy processes and systems (such as shared and local drives) are still open to them.

Usability – users do not see current EDRMS as usable because it is not intuitive, requires manual effort, is not linked to other systems and is often separate to task-based workflow in email or case management systems.”

“While we encouraged users to also talk about positive examples of what they thought is working well, most of the stories people wanted to share were of negative experiences,” the authors add.

Record-keeping is done differently in different parts of the APS, and the way current EDRM systems are configured and customised varies accordingly. The user experience research found a single process generally requires two or three different systems, which generally have limited or no interoperability.

It is not “manual effort” that public servants are most worried about, either.

“Users also do not anticipate that all records processes will or should become automatic,” according to the consultants.

“Instead, users expect that manual intervention will often be required because of their role as a public official and the nature of their work. When manual effort is required, users expect that it will be a seamless part of their everyday workflow. EDRMS does not currently deliver this experience.”

There’s also an interesting tidbit on the regulations contained somewhere or other in some kind of legislation:

“Most users were confident that they are meeting their legislative obligations as public servants in relation to official records (including for FOI, privacy and archives).

“In many cases, however, users did not actually know their specific obligations and assumed that their use of EDRMS or email meant that they were likely meeting their obligations.”

The UX report adds later that APS staff generally wouldn’t mind having to apply more effort to use a new system if it means they would be more certain of complying with all of their obligations.

The consultants also reported what APS staff said about their “desired future experience” — very broadly, a more useful system that is also easier to use — and recommended the department take a user-centred design approach to the whole-of-government EDRMS, via the requirements it is now taking to the market as well as its implementation.

Can it work?

The AusTender pack also includes the executive summary of a feasibility study Finance delivered to the APS Secretaries’ Committee on Transformation last May. It found agencies that have EDRM systems like TRIM had not been making the most of them for productivity:

“In many cases, EDRMS are being used as paper filing systems or as storage repositories and not as the sophisticated information management tools that they are. This is because many agencies haven’t yet investigated how to use the technology to its full potential.

“With total data storage growing across government at a tremendous rate, it is important that agencies keep only that information that is of value and use technology to identify and dispose of low value information.

“Without prioritising records management, government is facing a bloat of records of unknown value, while paying a premium price for systems designed to avoid such an outcome.”

The report argued that a “cultural shift” was required so that regular public servants come to see it is more productive to capture information when it is created, through an EDRMS, rather than record it after the fact.

The study found it was feasible to consolidate EDRM or move to a single APS-wide system and save money at the same time as improving interoperability (because currently agencies have a lot of the same systems, configured differently).

It also concluded the current setup costs too much and delivers too little value, partly because the systems are not designed for “everyday” users, and sniffed at what IT vendors had been able to provide:

“The vendor community has not provided products that address usability issues, and the primary supplier to the Australian Public Service (APS) has undertaken very little product innovation in the past decade.”

Its third key finding was that everyone — users, vendors and records management professionals — agreed the current system was unsustainable due to the growth of government data and that the record-keeping had to start happening “automatically in the background”. Agencies also need to resist the temptation to keep everything, it adds, and standardise their use of metadata to enable easier identification of low-value records.

But is the IT market ready to deliver?

One problem. It’s possible the local IT industry isn’t selling exactly what Finance wants to buy. After sounding out the market in early 2016, the department decided it was “not yet ready to provide a service capable of automating the record capture and lifecycle tasks”, according to the position paper.

“However, Finance is keen to understand whether there has been further innovation or technological enhancements developed by industry since that time, particularly where innovation aligns with the desired outcomes of the Platform.”

The position paper was published ahead of an industry briefing session on the afternoon of September 4 in Canberra, which will also be webcast.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.