Okay, let’s be truthful, you probably think this article has the most boring title you’ve read so far. Yeah – this stuff is a little dry. But wait!! It’s also incredibly important! In fact, it’s mandatory for openness. No awesome management skills – no benefits from being open. It’s that important. Look at this way: in order for you to have access to information, the information must exist and someone must be able to find it and get it to you. Records and information management is what makes this possible.
An open government utilizes good principles and practices in doing this. They have a plan for how each of the different types of government information are created, managed, processed, and stored. They have policies, bureaucracy, warehouses, computer programs, digital storage, and information that is created just to keep track of the information. While this may seem like a silly example of the inefficiencies of government bureaucracy, it is actually a key component of good information management – making sure that the information is “well-documented” and “well-structured.” These two things make it possible for the information to be found later, and to be properly understood once it is found. This data about data – or metadata – records for posterity who collected the data, why they collected it, and what it contains. Governments produce hundreds of millions of pieces of information each year. Without solid management of that information, it would all be lost for ever.
While there are a lot of standards out there to help government do this (some are listed in the Additional Info section below), there are some common characteristics that they generally agree on. A data steward (kind of like a shepherd, except for data) ought to:
- describe what the dataset contains in plain language
- explain what the type and format of the data is (e.g., is this a table, is it a statistical sample, or is it a geospatial data?)
- describe how current the data is and how often it’s updated
- identify the person or organization responsible for managing the data
- point to where the data can be accessed on the Web
- identify any restrictions on the use of the data
Records management is a unique and particularly important part of information management. Records are those documents that record how a government operates. This includes the minutes of meetings, materials used to make decisions, memos, signed orders, etc… anything that can be used to accurately tell what happened and why. Managing records properly requires that your government pay special attention to making them accessible to you because this is one of the critical threads that leads to accountability. If the record can’t be found, then past decisions can’t be checked on and past actions can’t be scrutinized in a meaningful way. Garbage in, garbage out. For this reason, proper records management is often called the backbone of open government.
David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States discusses the wide-ranging role of records management in the federal government.
Here are some of the more common standards for good data documentation: