I’ve been thinking about my favourite government department, DoRA, The Department of Random Activities. She’s not really a real department (we invented her for our acclaimed Digital Continuity training course) but she is made up from real stories we gathered from across government. Perhaps she’s more a Frankenstein’s monster of government departments.
I’ve been thinking about what the future might hold for DoRA, and specifically for how she manages her information. Even five years from now this could be a radically different picture from the way we work today. So drawing from developments going on around us, let’s take a trip, Tomorrow’s World style, into a brave new world of government information…
All of DoRA’s technology services are now provided through the cloud (i.e. they are all accessible through an internet connection).
Staff work flexible hours and often away from the office when it’s more convenient. They use secure government apps developed for mobile phones and tablets. It’s proved a very successful policy with most staff still spending two to three days a week on average in the office to keep contact with colleagues. The policy has been particularly successful for new parents.
The biggest change to DoRA’s management of information was the result of the the Open Government Information Strategy.* This built on the government’s approach to opening up data by providing better access to important work and projects within government, ensuring proactive release where possible. Sensitive information is still securely handled and the culture for doing is as firmly embedded as now in staff.
The first stage of the strategy was delivered through the work of the Identity Assurance Programme which was used to develop a single sign-on across all government technology platforms and ensure appropriate access to information for all civil servants.
The next stage was to ensure information could be found and used regardless of how or where it was created or held. All information now has a set of mandatory metadata that ensures basic understanding of what it is and what it is about. If an application can’t create this metadata it can’t be used by government.
Because this metadata also has to be in an open standard, such as Dublin Core, information can easily be moved across applications without further effort in migration planning.
These mandatory fields gather information about the department and team that created it, the type of object (email or policy document), the subject (honey production research, or Mars colonisation planning), and any possible sensitivity such as personal or financial information. Choices are picked from drop down menus of controlled terms or vocabularies.
These term sets are described, shared and published online. This enables any organisation to map its own terms to official departmental terms. So when someone searches for a term they recognise, they will get related results from departments that use different ways to describe the same thing.
Because all information now has a persistent identifier that enables access through a web browser and is created in open formats, it can be accessed by anyone with permission and be opened by them within their preferred application.
The publishing of the various terms and descriptions for the metadata enables the delivery of all this data as linked data. Because information metadata is uploaded daily to this linked data store civil servants have almost real time access to work going on in other departments.
DoRA’s information strategy supports this with the maxim: “you keep what you need, your team keeps what it needs, we keep what the business needs”. Disposal schedules are set by the business against a subject and object type and agreed with the business and then made publically available. Disposal metadata is automatically inherited and disposal is immediately actioned by the application. DoRA maintains four disposal periods: 2 years, 8 years, 20 years and archival. The term set for archival records is created by The National Archives using its Records Selection Criteria.
The use and understanding of information is controlled through open standards and shared metadata rather than the functionality of a particular application. This allows all information to be managed regardless of technology and so DoRA benefits from the creation of an environment in which staff can use the tools that best suit them without losing control of the information.
Because most metadata is automated and inherited, staff only have to pick a useful title and highlight whether work is draft or finalised, and estimate sensitivity issues. This enables them to manage their own content better and the business manages what it needs at a higher, almost invisible level. And there is always the ability to override decisions which is why DoRA now has a large information management team that sits at the centre of a corporate governance body joining all elements of the business in the single purpose of ensuring DoRA’s information is available to those who have the right to it.
For The National Archives, information for possible preservation is now identified and tracked from the point of creation. Information that has been published is still captured by the web archive. The Archives no longer transfers digital documents but pulls them from the cloud using metadata triggers. The Archives now primarily builds digital services to enable the wider exploration of the government record. Its own linked data solutions have enabled researchers to find previously unimagined possibilities in exploring connections and patterns through hundreds of years of government records.
All of this is possible and the greatest risk to success will be in clinging to analogue thinking, embracing tools rather than services; not understanding the potential in the media. The technology is there, the skills are growing. There are issues still to resolve in protecting sensitive data and many leaps of faith for departments to take. Risk appetites will need to change, and pragmatic approaches to data volumes mean thinking about content at much higher levels than individual documents. But as we learn to scale up we’ll learn how to find the granularity in the mass. This new world will need to be implemented carefully, not rushed. There needs to be strong governance to ensure staff and citizens have the freedom to work flexibly and benefit from a more open approach to releasing information. Tomorrow’s world could be a pretty amazing workplace, even if we still don’t have the flying cars.
*This is made up but what a great idea eh?