By Julian Bajkowski
The custodians of the world’s official records are slightly anxious and it shows.
On a typically mild Brisbane day in late August, hundreds of those tasked literally with preserving the history of government have converged at the river city’s convention centre to find a way forward in the digital age.
Often misunderstood as a slightly stuffy, almost archaic profession, in reality archivists remain the most highly trusted employees working in the public service because of their role preserving often highly sensitive documents.
And with good reason.
Cabinet papers, minutes of pivotal meetings and communications and correspondence that later define an era all pass through their hands.
But it’s not the paper world that’s creating a stir at the International Council of Archivists Congress 2012. It’s preserving Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the exploding stream of social media traffic and digital documents through which an increasing number of governments are communicating to their constituents.
So as David Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the United States, takes to the stage it seems fitting he opens his address with the official hashtag for proceedings: #ICA_2012
“In August of 2009 while my nomination as Archivist of the United States was being vetted, I saw the job description posted by the White House for a social media archivist,” Mr Ferriero says.
“So, even before I began my work in November of that year, I was asking social media related questions about the records of the US Government and the role of the National Archives.
At a time when the public sector is confronting how to manage the onslaught of social media, Mr Ferriero’s experiences and views are instructive – and not just because the US is at the vanguard of entrenching Web 2.0 services within public administration and policy.
Importantly, he has mandated that his staff lead the social media trend rather than follow.
“Since the National Archives is responsible for providing guidance to the Federal Agencies and the White House on the records implications of the technologies they are using, I feel strongly that the National Archives needs to be out in front in the use of and experimentation with new and emerging technologies,” Mr Ferriero says.
“I expect my staff to be in a position to anticipate which technologies are going to be used by the Government to do its work and communicate with the American public. And today that means social media.”
Central to Ferriero’s view is what he terms the public’s “expectation to find what you need through social media platforms” which he says are increasing exponentially every year.
He cites two reports from the Pew Internet and American Life project that put the number of Americans using the internet at 79 per cent. Of those, 66 per cent use social media, a number he says has more than doubled since the last survey done in 2008.
In particular Mr Ferriero notes that there is not only an expectation for the government to be on the web, but that on his first day in office President Obama issued an Open Government memorandum that declared:
“Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.”
The result has been that 23 of 24 US federal agencies surveyed in June last year now have a presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. He says another a survey of 3,000 federal managers found that around a quarter of them used Facebook for work purposes.
Whichever way you look at it, the position Mr Ferriero takes is a long way from the attitude that letting social media in the workplace is a risk that invites Gen-Y employee timewasting.
But there’s still a sting in the so-called ‘long tail’ of Web 2.0 technology thanks to disruption it brings.
If America’s chief archivist is keen to evangelise the increasing use of digital technology, his Australian counterpart is equally frank and fearless in asking the hard questions about how so much of the data we cherish will be preserved for those to come.
Director-General of the National Archives of Australia, David Fricker, says that even concepts like what is “original, reliable, irrefutable evidence” are being turned on their head by the digital society.
His concern is that the rapidly evolving and often disruptive nature of technology is throwing up real and immediate challenges for not only preservation and access to documents, but ultimately their provenance too.
Mr Fricker argues that even though digital information is now more accessible “without effective preservation plans in place, there is also the risk of losing important information – that fragmented information could evaporate as easily as it was created.”
“Getting digital preservation right is an enormous challenge,’ Mr Fricker says. “Obsolete technology can render digitised documents inaccessible for future generations. A ‘record’ is the thing that provides evidence of business activity and preservation must start the moment the record is created.”
One of the ways the National Archives of Australia has floated as a better way to preserve records and documents is that they are transferred automatically to the organisation so it “could receive digital records as soon as they are created, while government agencies would still have access to use them for day-to-day business.”
But there are also questions that go straight to the heart of what is necessary to preserve.
Mr Fricker says that increasingly his organisation is framing its thinking around the concept of the “‘essential performance” – a concept “that accepts that the digital information must endure well beyond the utility of the medium that carries the information.”
“In a way we’re trying to preserve the ‘song’ long after the ‘singer’ has departed,” Mr Fricker says.
“But can you separate the song from the singer? And is it the same song? Is it enough to preserve the music sheet, or is it the performance that matters? Will future generations have a different view to ours? In short – what are we losing even when we think we’ve preserved everything?” he asks.
Mr Fricker says the response is that the concept of essential performance needs to be “a formal mechanism for determining the characteristics that must be preserve for the record to retain its meaning over time” – such as the essential characteristics of a word processing document including textual content, formatting like bolded text, fonts, layout, bulleting, colour; embedded graphics and, quite vitally, elements of the metadata including the author, creation time and date.
It seems a small price to ensure that history can be created online as well as on paper.
Experts providing assessments to government organisations on technology say that the grass roots nature of social media means that it’s essential for local governments and councils to take account of what is happening in their own digital backyard.
Naomi Andrew, a Web 2.0 and digital environment researcher and consultant to public sector organisations and businesses, says that one of the first social media management issues that must be addressed “is letting go of total control” in terms of communicating in public.
“It’s just not necessary,” Ms Andrew says of command-and-control style communications strategies often favoured by larger organisations looking to eschew all risk.
“There’s a need to mitigate risk, but it’s now a decentralised world.”
As a resident of Brisbane, she nominates the example of how the Queensland Police Service immediately took to Twitter during the city’s floods to succinctly distribute and respond to queries coming to and devices like smartphones as a case in point.
“They didn’t get hung-up on risk but focused on how social media could be used to help,” Ms Andrew says. “There were people’s lives at risk.”
She says that local governments need to not only develop a strategy to interact through social media but ensure that they have a way of preserving their communications.
“Constituents will use it to gain a voice, you just have to anticipate it”, Ms Andrews says.
While petitions and committees were once the norm, residents are now becoming increasingly proactive and proficient in organising themselves into online communities to seek outcomes to issues. These are now all part of the record.