Reframing records management: towards knowledge governance
Structural changes in the public sphere call for innovative responses from records and knowledge practitioners: knowledge is central to public policy; public governance is a contested issue; and information is now hard to contain. The governance of knowledge is moving to centre stage and opens up the possibility of a new strategic role which is active, intervening, accountable and highly professional, calling for independence and a well-developed ethical sense.
In a sense, this book has been about the problems of balancing the present with the future. We are used to thinking about this in terms of the big issues of the day, such as climate change and biodiversity loss: how important is it to take action now to reduce carbon emissions, costing some degree of lost economic growth and wealth-creation, set against a reliance on future technology to produce alternative solutions; how to agree sufficient international restraint in the exploitation of sea fish that will support sustainable stock levels? Economists frequently use a device called discount
rates to quantify this sort of calculation: the further off in time, the less future benefits are worth, calculated equivalently to today’s present value, because future generations will be wealthier and more productive. The cost to today is in the lost opportunity: what alternative work could limited resources be put to instead that would give a faster return on investment? Human nature is always tempted to value the present much more than the future: but with such big issues, the calculation has a cliff edge: once a fish species is extinct, a food source is gone forever; the consequences of global warming may be irreversible.
The future direction of records management is the subject of a similar balancing. On one hand, the philosophy of information management – just-in-time delivery of the ‘right information to the right person’ – values the present much more than the future. This strand pushes records management towards an integration with operational problems, merging it with IT management as another branch of technology; it directly addresses today’s problems, seeks immediate solutions and a rapid return on investment. On the other, the archival tradition argues the case for the future; archivists are custodians of past memory, but are also concerned with capturing the present for the benefit of future generations. This strand emphasises the fragmenting effects of IT on records creation, problems of digital preservation and the dangers of a future ‘black hole’ or ‘dark ages’, a cliff edge over which today’s records will be lost. We need to invest now so that future generations can reap benefits.
Relatively recently, the archival world has been recognising that they are shapers of memory about the past, as well as custodians (e.g. Schwartz and Cook, 2002; Johnson, 2008). A very small percentage of records are selected through appraisal processes for entry to the archives; some people and narratives are written into history and others written out. The recognition is that the selection process is not a neutral one, even though based on theory and methodology; these principles themselves reflect a set of current values that define which records are, and are not, important – and a set of interests and world-views that are embedded in those values. Archival appraisal is another frame through which today’s records are filtered, knowingly representing our present to the future; archival records are an expression of power in the society which they represent.
This is not intended as a criticism of archival science; from the earliest, archives have necessarily documented the institutions they represent in this way. As earlier chapters have tried to demonstrate, the information management strand also works in the same way, as a frame which filters current information, embodying a set of values based on corporatism and business management; and the information systems world has yet to show a widespread recognition of that role. From this point of view, the archival and information management strands have as much in common as separates them. The introductory chapter suggested that the trajectory of the discipline appears to be shifting from archives, through information, to knowledge, at least in terms of public positioning. Perhaps, though, it is more productive to see knowledge as the common ground between the established church of archives and the reformist chapels of information management.
The fundamental aim of this book is to attempt (at least the beginnings of) a synthesis between these two positions that is able to make a strategic response to the challenges of some very relevant structural changes in the public sector. The first structural change is in the central role of knowledge to public policy, not just in the sense of knowing about how to do public policy, its problems and pitfalls, as an expert; knowledge is also central to the objects of government: economic growth, core behaviour change, citizenship, maintaining legitimacy, social cohesion and a sustainable society through rapid social, economic and technological change. Working with public policy is less about applying knowledge and more about working with knowledge as a force in the wider society and economy.
Knowledge, interests, identity and action are tightly bound together, as I have tried to show in earlier chapters – not all the same thing, but interlinked, so that a change in one factor is reflected by adjustment in the others. The wider objectives of public policy are brought to pass by working with this interlinked web of factors, because the problems they are addressing can only be alleviated through collective action by the widest range of interests and cannot be commanded outright: targets for climate change can be fixed in legislation, for example, but the action to achieve them presupposes a voluntary acquiescence of the general public. Creating the right climate for acquiescence is as much about creating a knowledge climate – made evident in knowledge structures and processes that shape how it is created, used and viewed – as anything else.
The second structural change is a growth of public interest in active governance. This might seem an odd claim in view of the well-observed decline of public interest in electoral politics and voting. Certainly respect for politicians – whom opinion polls regularly place lowest in lists of trusted professions, even below estate agents – and engagement in the political party process are low. But interest in many issues that are largely governance ones is higher: in the UK, for example, in the controversy over the (now cancelled) introduction of identity cards and in the outrage over parliamentary expenses; in the turn towards direct engagement on practical issues in many parts of Europe; and more widely in the demands for more democratic constitutions in the Middle East.
This interest in accountability goes beyond the presentation of evidence released through freedom of information or the simple assurance that such records are being kept. It is more focused on the practicalities of everyday life: people are more concerned with the local level, on whether their views are being taken into account, and with the impact of decisions on public services. For the reasons above, governments need to engage with active citizenship to deliver many public policy outcomes; and the demonstration of good governance is central to this purpose. The CIPFA Good Governance Standard for Public Services (2004) lists some key characteristics:
These characteristics make a good match with the public values framework described in Chapter 8, including both the performance outputs of the control quadrant and the outcome focus of the collaborate quadrant. The shift from hierarchies towards decentralised networks as delivery mechanisms requires that these characteristics be distributed amongst participants, coordinated at the network level rather than centralised in one organisation. The capabilities of the strategic role outlined above combine with these characteristics by:
supporting good performance and decision-making by building and populating knowledge architectures that frame, select and validate available resources in the knowledge landscape, so as best to reflect public service values in the context of an outcome-focused risk management;
demonstrating public service values by drawing participants and stakeholders into knowledge flows and connecting them with knowledge architectures, agreeing the narrative through a dynamic interaction;
The third structural change relates, but is not restricted, to technological developments: information is harder to contain within restricted channels. The most obvious example is in Internet-based developments, with, in many countries, an almost ubiquitous access to online sources and the ability to exchange information rapidly and in real time. The network infrastructure transcends the restrictions of geographical space and time, social media enable personal network-building, and communication channels such as Twitter amplify the spread of comment and opinion. Other media, such as the availability of satellite television with multiple news channels, have a similar effect. People are much better, or at least more, informed and have become used to this. The effects on professional practice are evident: for example, 20 or so years ago, it was common for medical libraries to refuse enquiries from patients about their type of condition, referring them back to their general practitioner; now it is common for patients to research their symptoms online before visiting their doctor – with significant implications for both medical and information specialists.
One should be careful to avoid excessive utopianism, remembering some of the caveats expressed in Chapter 7; the effects can be negative as well as positive. The current Internet culture emphasises the free flow of information and relatively cheap access; but the attitudes of the small number of corporations that own the Internet infrastructure, or a more robust regulatory attitude by state administrations, may change this. Despite this, there are significant impacts for citizen engagement:
The use by government of social media is immature at present. It appears to be mainly used for one-way communications, for instance, as a channel for ministers to present to their constituents a human, day-to-day face showing ‘what it’s like in government’, but without really engaging on important or contentious issues; as a substitute for paper consultation processes; or as an adjunct to press releases. One could imagine much more innovative uses, perhaps:
A testing ground for policy ideas using a Second Life style virtual space, to see how people would actually interact with them in practice: of course, virtual space offers participants an opportunity to swap their real-life identity for a preferred alternative and to act in ways normally constrained by their feelings of real-world propriety. But this is exactly the problem with understanding how a new policy will work out in practice: in a conventional consultation, people will tend to respond as they think they should feel, rather than as they will actually behave. Better to find this out in a simulation than through a costly failed implementation.
Engaging with citizens to develop knowledge and understanding: questionnaire-based consultations and opinion polls are quite blunt instruments, which rely on correctly predetermining the possible options that respondents can select from, and assume that all the necessary background knowledge to understand the range of options offered is present. Interactive multi-way media offer an opportunity to engage in a critical debate in which, as the knowledge of participants develops, their opinions may change. Learning through dialogue is an essential part of clients and professionals working together to co-produce a social outcome.
Creating social networks to connect service users/clients: moving from a mode of conventional service delivery to a passive user, towards one which encourages active users to take more responsibility and control, means changing the communication platforms. An active, engaged client base that is well connected can spread positive influences more effectively than conventional broadcast communication from a centralised service; and also requires officials to respond innovatively to feedback and negative influences through service changes.
These are just illustrative possibilities to make the point, and no doubt actual applications will evolve in their own course; but it does seem inevitable that, sooner or later, things will move in this direction. As these types of tool mature, we are less in the business of circulating information (whether considered objective and value-free or not) and more that of developing knowledge – this is inherent in the tools. One characterisation is that knowledge is information with an attitude; as we have seen, much of this attitude is already embedded in records, although not always recognised. The really key issues are less about ‘how to archive a virtual space’ – is that really desirable anyway? – and more about the complex and thorny governance problems of knowledge development.
One way of reading these structural changes is as a changing relationship between knowledge and action in the public sector. As both action and responsibility are decentralised, the role of knowledge grows: knowledge, in a sense, mediates between the state and the citizen. This puts knowledgerelated issues of governance and accountability at centre stage, for example in moving from:
Services that do things to clients, towards services that do things with them: connecting people in social networks loses some control over the outcome – where does accountability lie? Administrators who do not want to let go may attempt to retain control by filtering relevant knowledge: is it enough to make information available without the ability to decode it correctly? How much responsibility lies with the provider, and how is that accountability demonstrated?
Consultation to critical debate: if policy and delivery is strongly influenced by networks and opinion-changing, who is connected into those networks? Are real citizens crowded out by lobbying or pressure groups – easier to engineer through Internet anonymity and poorly designed ‘crowdsourcing’? Are participants self-selected by social group and access, disadvantaging those across the digital divide? What is the right balance between digital and faceto-face interaction, and what kinds of knowledge contribution are considered acceptable? Who, in other words, gets to write the record?
A culture of secrecy to a culture of openness: secrecy engenders a cycle of fear about uncertainty, leading to distrust and to entrenched opinions, defensiveness and cover-seeking, and a culture of blame, reinforcing secrecy; openness to a culture of engagement, challenging and being challenged, opinion-forming, learning, trustbuilding and greater openness. How do ideas of accountability translate into a more open culture? How do records act as evidence in open government?
Risk-averse to risk-taking: the opposite of avoiding risk wherever possible is not seeking out risk, but understanding, taking and managing proportionate risks in relation to potential outcomes. Risk is central to accountability in use of public resources and knowledge is central to risk. How to embed information risk and knowledge risk within corporate governance and public governance?
A central issue for public administration is: who is accountable for what, and when? Accountability concerns what should have been done, as much as what was done, and as noted, is central in developing public trust and confidence. As knowledge moves centre stage, judgements about what should have been done concern not just compliance with legal and policy requirements, but also assessments of judgement in making better or worse choices, based on that knowledge; and in turn, whether the knowledge base for dialogue and decision-making is itself of sufficient quality. This puts the dyadic relationship between knowledge mobilisation and records management, and its three inter-related dimensions – the balance between knowing and doing, evidence and accountability, and who is working to deliver what outcome – at centre stage too; and this in turn points to the need to develop governance concepts for this wider environment – to progress from information governance towards knowledge governance.
If we are concerned that knowledge and records make the best possible contribution to the new governing environment – that can serve to both guide and reflect action – then we also need to be working at the institutional and social levels, since these are increasingly where outcomes are delivered. In thinking about knowledge structures and processes, we are incorporating a change in perspective – from organisation to network, from functions to outcomes – that needs to be reflected in roles and professionalism. A knowledge governance role will be:
nudge: creating the opportunities and making the connections that encourage people in promising directions for knowledge development and deployment, without requiring that they do so; using analytical skills to help make available to people choices that they might not otherwise have spotted;
nurture: augmenting social networks and institutions with a supportive environment, fostering a culture of sharing and learning, and connecting people with the existing knowledge and information resources they need; helping the latent potential in the network to emerge;
respond: being responsive to emergent needs and adapting systems accordingly, working at the systemic level to include stakeholders and participants, ensuring a form of knowledge development that reflects their full range and best delivers public value;
build: maintaining the longer-term perspective, building a knowledge architecture that exhibits broad features of integrity and authenticity, and managing attention as a scarce resource by imbuing it with focus, relevance and precision; and helping build public trust and confidence, and legitimacy, by delivering accountability in all its aspects.
It seems clear that this sort of role – taking records and knowledge out to the front line – is a powerful one, in which a highly polished sense of professional ethics and responsibility is vital. To the extent that the focus of the role evolves beyond the organisation to the network, or institutional, level, existing professional ethics and codes of practice must also evolve to match this new platform; and this is likely to introduce new kinds of conflict.
A fundamental question for a developed professional ethics asks: who is the client? For the records manager working solely within one organisation, the answer is relatively straightforward: the employer, and its senior managers, is the client, and the task is to manage the records and information that are owned by the organisation in its best interests (including advising the client on issues where their responsibilities may be unmet). For the knowledge strategist working in the public sector, matters are less clear: one client is the employing organisation but the strategist is also involved, at the systemic and network levels, with other organisations and stakeholders, and has a responsibility to help deliver the wider social outcomes and add value across the whole piece, not just for the employer. Conflicts of interest will be more frequent and the responsibility to resolve them oneself more difficult to avoid. And as a public administrator seeking to achieve the most feasible and best public value, one client is the public good itself.
It also seems clear that such conflicts are extremely hard to resolve at the personal level. Strong professions have strong professional associations, which regulate membership through education and training standards, validate professional standards of behaviour and legitimise appropriate, or sanction inappropriate, resolution of interest conflicts through various codes of practice. Although some codes have been developed by professional associations in records management, they are less developed than those in longer established professions, such as doctors and lawyers – but the demands of a transformed sector will need such a mature and well-backed code.
The US-based ARMA International has a Code of Professional Responsibility for records and information managers, which divides responsibilities into two parts: social principles and professional principles. The four social principles derive from the manager’s responsibility to society and include the maintenance of proper standards and governance (citing the need to affirm ethical and moral as well as legal uses) and a general responsibility to support a free flow of publicly available information that helps to inform and educate society (ARMA, 2011). The ten professional principles derive from responsibility to employers, clients and profession, and cover the ground of a model professional code.
The Australasian RIMPA has a more integrated Statement of Ethical Practice, which sets down ten general principles as core values of the profession, commencing with a clear statement of professional role: to maintain accountability and protect the wider public interest (RIMPA, 2011). From this promising start, the statement elucidates various other responsibilities mostly with an organisational focus, but at points recognising a responsibility both to employers/clients, and loyalty and duties to a wider community, and its social and political institutions – although it does not spell out what these are. This works well for records alone; but if we were, as an experiment, to substitute the word knowledge (and of course, this is not intended to be within its scope) some of the conflicts become more apparent.
A broad-based professional association has a wider scope than the public sector, so a code would by its nature be somewhat general; a starting point might be to consider cross-sector ethical issues within a specialised sector and look to developing some appropriate institutional mechanisms for resolving them: for example, the UK knowledge and information manager professional specialism could do some useful work here.
One option for records managers is to retain local and organisational focus, as custodian of memory and a record of past actions; but this role is unlikely to advance in profile and more likely to suffer through drastic budget cuts in the foreseeable future, reducing rather than expanding scope.
Another is to merge with information managers and technologists of various hues, perhaps losing a unique identity among the ambiguities and varieties of the trade. The recent emphasis on ERM technology has made this an attractive option to some; but the glory days of IT are fading fast, as technology becomes ubiquitous and user-led. An alliance with knowledge management appears to offer a brighter option; but this also has lost much kudos with users when suppliers often appear as another branch of IT in disguise.
The theme of this book has been to suggest a third option: strategically aligning the specific qualities of records management with the problems of knowledge mobilisation – putting knowledge into purposeful action, rather than trying to manage it. This is perhaps a foolhardy option to develop, since it requires an attempt to make out the lines of a future, transformed and transforming, public sector when much of the old remains familiarly in view. Yet it does seem that we are entering a period of rapid and transformative change, although there are undoubted problems en route: politics is a short-term business dealing with long-term problems; and humans by nature value the present more highly than the future. Yet also, it is clear that the key problems of the age are ones of changing behaviour: climate change, health, sustainable economic growth, energy and fossil fuels, and so on – problems of knowledge development and mobilisation for present and future benefit.