The Information Society


Letter from the Guest Editor Wendy Duff
17(4) 2001

Special Issue: Authenticity, Social Accountability & Trust with Electronic Records

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) continue to affect nearly ever aspect of our society. Almost all organizations in the developed world are completely dependent upon these technologies and organizational gurus continue to extol the benefits accrued from exploiting ICTs. Today, little work gets accomplished when the computer system goes down. Organizations create, exchange and use a multitude of electronic records as they carry out their business. For example, the average knowledge worker receives at least ninety messages a day and this number grows each year. Many believe that the volume of electronic records will increase exponentially over the next few years. For example, pundits suggest that E-commerce will triple from $500 billion in 1999 to over $1.6 trillion by 2003 with the promulgation of the United States "Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act" (s. 761). This act will "allow businesses to seal multimillion-dollar mergers and consumers to buy cars, apply for loans or close mortgages with a simple click of a computer key." Without question, electronic records permeate all facets of our lives, both public and private.

Business records are essential resources of all organizations. Records direct and control business transactions and employees, and they document expectations, actions and consequences. Records are also indispensable tools for any democratic society because they serve as valuable evidence of events, activities, promises and actions. As such, they provide essential information to anyone seeking an understanding of past actions, wanting redress for past deeds, or wishing to hold an individual or government to account. Records are vital to individuals and society but their value as instruments of accountability and evidence depends upon their authenticity, integrity, accessibility and trustworthiness, as well as their preservation over time. However the trustworthiness and integrity of records in electronic form is often questioned and their long-term preservation creates many challenges.

The problems posed by electronic records are not simply technological but also organizational and societal. For example,

These are only a few of the difficulties that organizations face as they move toward the paperless office. Records' professionals, lawyers, auditors, and information technologists are increasingly concerned that their organizations are at great risk. For example, auditors have to rely more heavily on oral testimony when records required to audit systems are missing. Lawyers are apprehensive about the legal risks their companies face due to uncontrolled systems that produce records. Long-term preservation of electronic records are threatened by technological obsolesce and inadequate record keeping procedures. In a recent report, the Collaborative Electronic Notebook Association suggested that "every organization is building its own fleet of Titanic ships in the form of electronic record technology systems and data systems. Many of the records these vessels carry will be shipwrecked on the dozens of icebergs growing in the future seas of IT." Inadequate management of electronic records increases the risks that many organizations face but more importantly it threatens society's ability to hold their government or organizations to account. If records lack integrity or trustworthiness or they are lost due to technological obsolesce, we will greatly diminish our capacity to understand past actions, or to prove wrong doings and to ensure compensation. Moreover, our ability to hold people, governments and organizations to account will be limited because accountability depends upon access to trustworthy records. This special issue discusses the challenges of managing electronic records and investigates the link between electronic records and accountability, accountability and formal and informal procedures, accountability, and technology as well as ICTs and organizational values. The issue delves into these topics to demonstrate the multi-faceted nature of these challenges. The first three articles in this issue deal with various aspects of accountability and records, including the link between a radiologist's accountability and recordkeeping practices, the relationship between financial accountability and information technology in Africa, and the connection between public sector accountability and ICTs. The final paper outlines the numerous problems that arise from the management of electronic records and discusses an international research project investigating these challenges.

In the first paper, "Social Construction of Accountability: Radiologists and their Recordkeeping Practices," Beth Yakel examines the relationship between formal and informal processes and recordkeeping practices and the connections between them and accountability. She begins with a general review of accountability followed by a discussion of accountability in a radiologist's environment. She points out that radiologists' accountability is linked to the process of creating radiology reports and the content of the documents. Both the creation and content of the reports are controlled by a variety of formal and informal warrants including, internal procedures and external professional guidelines, bureaucratic needs, and departmental practices. Yakel does not discuss electronic records specifically, but the article identifies the multiple accountabilities at play in a radiology department, and highlights the connection between accountability, and formal warrant and unwritten codes of practice. By investigating the connection among accountability, business processes, recordkeeping practices, warrant and informal codes of practice, she demonstrates that designing recordkeeping systems that are accountable will fail unless accountability is understood on a procedural level. In the second article, Barata and Cain focus on financial accountability in Sub-Saharan Africa and demonstrate that an infusion of information technology in these countries has failed to produce financial accountability. They discuss the complex relationship among accountability, transparency, information and technology. They suggest that integrated financial systems can enhance both transparency and accountability if accompanied with proper controls and assigned responsibilities.

Although the case study centers on record keeping practices in Africa, it highlights the need to test solutions and technologies in different cultures. Furthermore, the article demonstrates that financial accountability depends upon fundamental structures including the existence of good recordkeeping systems and procedures prior to establishing new financial systems.

"Electronic Records Management and Public Accountability" compares the link between information technology and government accountability. Meijer reviews the literature of public sector accountability and then reports on a research project that solicited opinions from international electronic records experts to investigate the possible implication of ICTs on accountability. The study discusses the risks and opportunities associated with five different types of software: email, database management systems, individual software for creating documents, web technology and smart systems. Meijer identifies five ways in which ICTs are affecting records management, including mixing "on the record" and "off the record" communications, increasing individual control over records, focussing on present information, interlinking information from different organizations, and integrating procedures into systems. Meijer suggests that organizational values will affect the impact that ICTs have on a corporation and the risks and opportunities that organizations gain from the software.

In the final paper "Concepts, Principles, and Methods for the Management of Electronic Records," Duranti reviews the many challenges that electronic records present to organizations and reports on the findings of a research project carried out by the United States Department of Defense and researchers at the University of British Columbia. The researchers used diplomatics to identify the components of an electronic record and to develop rules for governing the creation and management of these records. Durnati then describes a new research project, The International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems (InterPares) which will study the policies, strategies and standards for preserving electronic records over time. She reports on the preliminary findings of the InterPares project that is being carried out by interdisciplinary teams in fourteen countries. The research is focussing on principles and strategies because of the dynamic nature of the technology and the international perspective of the project.

The four papers in this issue demonstrate the multi-faceted nature of accountability, the link between reliable, authentic records, assigned responsibilities, formal and informal procedures and controls. Furthermore, this issue indicates that information technologies and electronic records are having a profound effect on organizations and accountability. However, the effect of technology on records and accountability depends upon a number of complex variables including an organization's recordkeeping traditions, a country's or an organization's culture, organizational values, unwritten codes of practice, the degree of transparency in the organization, and the type of application. Understanding these complex matters and the symbiotic relationship among each of them is essential if society is to ensure the existence and preservation of trustworthy records needed to understand fully our past actions.

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