By DEBORAH DURHAM-VICHR
Librarians have always created more efficient access to information, said Librarian James H. Billington in his opening remarks at this year's Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC) Forum. In fact, the swiftly evolving technologies that enable a more dynamic use of information–known as enterprise content management–are electronic versions of the staple tools of librarians, he contended.
The forum's question for 2003 centered around information management policy. Or, in more formal words, what is the current policy context for federal enterprise content management? And, should federal librarians be responsible for it?
Billington reminded the packed audience March 19 in the Mumford Room, that "Content management, at its core, is the bridge between resources and users." Content management, done correctly, can resolve the concerns of delivering the most accurate, the most timely, the most reliable, and the most needed resources–both efficiently and economically, he said.
"Now that Congress has charged the federal community with improving both its content and technology management, it is the federal librarian who can determine how best to syndicate the nation's data and develop sustainable processes to ensure both its access and protection," said Billington.
Two keynote speakers, Stephen Arnold, president of Arnold Information Technology and a leading international authority on online database systems, and Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Census, expanded on Billington's statements. Arnold spoke first, giving a succinct view of the future enterprise content management setting and policy momentums enabled by technology. Clay brought hindsight to the issue with an overview of the history of Congress' involvement in information policy and the impact of last year's E-Government Bill.
The Changing World of Enterprise Content Management
Step by step, Arnold summarized what content consists of: First there is the creation of it, he said, explaining that "wherever there is a computer, there is the creation of data." Then there is the production of data, which varies by device. A word processor creates a different type of data than a video editing program. Management comes next, with Arnold's observation that "it is clearly important to get control of information assets." Then there is distribution and content delivery. Finally, content management needs promotion, or in other words, it must be communicated. "Content is useless unless you pass it on," he said.
But, "content threatens to overwhelm us," Arnold observed. In 2000, there were 15 million gigabytes of digital information available–including material that reached back to the beginning of recorded time. By 2003, the number had skyrocketed to 57 million gigabytes of information, he said. The creation of content continues at this exponential growth. To prove that there is "no single solution," he named several companies that are helping the government to manage its content.
"What is driving content management?" he asked the audience. One driver is the idea–the growing awareness–that content management is necessary, said Arnold. Another is the demand for integration. He said, "Content management has to be a part of the woodwork, it must feel comfortable.
"We're caught in a double helix, between two inseparables–technology and text. They intertwine and the connectors are us, the people who know how to bridge technology."
To drive home his point of the changing setting of content management, Arnold showed a picture of the plains of Mongolia, bare except for a hut or two, ringed far on the horizon by mountains. "Here is where a different modality is emerging," he said. "And it must be wireless. There's no money to lay a land line."
Together with the "Starbucks-ification" of the work environment, which he described as fluid and collaborative, and the advancement of accessing devices, such as a dual processor computer in a phone that can run video–the latest offering from the Japanese Internet behemoth NTT DoCoMo–enterprise content management has much to deal with in the near future.
"This is the new setting that enterprise content management policy must understand," said Arnold. But it must also take into account its chronic problems. "When we think about enterprise content management in the federal government, not just the library, we have to recognize that there are silos of information. And they are necessary. No one wants Department of Defense information to appear on the FirstGov Web site," he said.
"Second, we must be aware of fads and that procurement often is driven by fads. Third, good government and technology are not necessarily the same thing," he added. The gap between IT pros and "the person who sees a citizen" must be overcome as well as the lack of business architecture.
These chronic policy problems are further complicated by content management's digital problems, such as the management of 70 million Web pages on FirstGov and the sheer number of transactions that need to be digitized in the federal government.
From a policy point of view, Arnold explained, "At the top of the stack is support to citizens, then there is the actual delivery; [these] are support functions. Finally, underpinning it all is enterprise content management."
"This is how to think about content management," said Arnold, describing its appearance. At the bottom is the critical layer of information storage; then transaction management (the set of software determining who gets access, etc.); then business logic (the set of rules); then its presentation–the interface. Finally, before a customer can get into the information that he or she wants, there must be a layer of security or authentication. "At the top of the layers is the customer, accessing information down though the stack." If a new "view" is required, there would be no need to redo all the layers, there would simply be a new digital "pipe" attached in order to access the layers.
"Pulling data from different sources for a different view–that is the core of thinking about content management," said Arnold. And the key to its magic is technology.
Advances in software standards and XML-based tools will enable policy to be part of the underpinning layer, explained Arnold. Instead of having to write new code for every change in business logic, XML authoring tools allow information to be entered only once, and as long as security parameters are set up, one agency employee can enter information and another user at a different agency can pull it up, sifted through layers of Web services. He described a graphic tool that allows content managers to simply move chunks of business logic via mouse.
In conclusion, Arnold said, "enterprise content management is not an add-on, it's our business. … Libraries are an important part of that." The changing enterprise content management setting will "require output on the fly. The technology will enable us to do policy. It is not idle thinking that we can share," he said, adding that this way of thinking is part of the shift to a real time enterprise.
"A real time enterprise is where any worker can access content; where there is superior information availability. … We can use technologies to streamline business processes, to be able to reduce costs and enter data only once. The real time enterprise is available through a single interface, and that's a browser, not a word processor."
Policy in the Government's Interest
If Arnold gave his audience a view of the future, Clay looked at the past, culminating in the imperatives of the E-Government Act. He started off his speech with the fact that "the federal government has been in the information business from the very beginning."
Clay enumerated the information activities of government, such as the creation of the depository library system to support an informed and educated public. Some activities are mandated by the Constitution, such as the census. He drew on his experience as a ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Census to illustrate some of the basic problems that federal agencies face today.
"Census records are maintained by the National Archives and after 72 years are opened to the public," he said. "Just last April, the Archives opened the 1930 census with much fanfare. These historic census records are the most sought-after collection at the archives." But, ironically enough, during the 2000 census when forms were captured electronically, paper forms were destroyed.
"The agency, in its zeal to modernize and digitize, had forgotten about its responsibility to preserve public records," said Clay. Ultimately, the Census Bureau had to pay to have forms transferred from electronic records to microfilm.
Clay described the federal government's burgeoning information collection activities in the early 20th century, including the creation of the income tax, the Veterans Administration after World War I, and New Deal programs that brought social programs such as unemployment, social security and welfare benefits. The government's information activities in the latter half of the 20th century are characterized by attempts to reduce burdens and rationalize information management.
Congress passed the Federal Reports Act of 1942 and later the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) of 1980. "Those laws attempt to balance the dual, and sometimes competing, goals of managing the life cycle of information, and reducing the reporting burdens the government places on its citizens and businesses," said Clay. The PRA was reauthorized in the 1990s and refocused the activities of the government on information policy and away from information technology.
But there were critical IT policy failures in the 1990s, explained Clay. "Information policy should be about getting the right information to the right people at the right time. All too often it is a discussion of machines and the procurement of those machines," he said.
Instead, there should be an emphasis on knowledge management, which recognizes the importance of the flow of information. "In other words, knowledge management replaces the machine with the information as the focal point of policy and management development," Clay pointed out.
The E-Government Act, signed into law on Dec. 17, 2002, aims to do just that. Among other things, it is designed to improve the methods by which government information is organized, preserved and made accessible to the public, said Clay.
Of particular interest to the library audience, said Clay, is the establishment of an interagency committee that develops recommendations on standards for organizing and categorizing government information which is searchable electronically. The law requires the development of a public domain directory of federal Web sites and a taxonomy of subjects to review and categorize public federal Web sites. In this last activity, the law requires the committee to work in collaboration with agency librarians and federal depository librarians, among others.
"It's too early for evaluation," said Clay. But what is clear from the new law is that electronic documents, just like paper documents, can be considered federal records that need to be managed and preserved. "While this seems obvious to many in this room, it was not that long ago that the executive branch held steadfast to the position that electronic records were not governed by the same rules … in fact, some argued that they were not records at all."
Ultimately, the E-Government Act begins the process of developing principles of practice for government Web sites. "Here is an area ripe with promise and ripe with problems," said Clay. Agencies need to develop a set of practices and principles that assures that documents are managed and preserved. For example, changes to a document should be obvious to the user and it should be easy for the public to know when a document was placed on a site, he added.
"The Library of Congress is playing an important role in capturing for the public the changing face of Congression-al Web sites. … As knowledge managers, you are in the business of helping people like me, and my staff, get the information we need, when we need it. Far too few people understand the importance of that function," said Clay.
He described a recent observation by TV commentator Andy Rooney about a fallacious Web site that listed the IQs of the past 10 presidents. Clay concluded, "You are the people who protect us from those kinds of frauds. You are the people who must assure the integrity and authenticity of government information. In partnership, we can move government information policy into the 21st century."
Deborah Durham-Vichr is a contract editor/writer in the Public Affairs Office.