The 40-year legacy of public disclosure is flawed but the next four decades of public record keeping give the world a chance to correct the historic accident that Johannes Gutenberg was born 600 years before Tim Berners-Lee.
Government has a duty not only to create, preserve and make records available but to ensure that those records have the authenticity and permanence to make them worthy of public trust.
Historically paper and ink records secured that trust, but in the digital age it will take a convergence of change in law, technology and business practice to secure continued trust in public institutions and ensure the integrity of the digital public record for ourselves and our posterity.
So says For the Record: Maintaining Trust in Public Institutions by Ensuring the Integrity of the Digital Public Record, a strategy paper from The Centre for Digital Government released earlier this year. The paper sketches out the first draft of a plan for the next 40 years to protect and promote the integrity of the digital public record.
The paper notes the Internet has focused attention on some serious shortcomings in paper-bound policies, processes and practices and spurred an overdue conversation about modernizing the stewardship of the public record and the role IT plays among policymakers and public sector managers.
But it points out this year's State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Resources from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) concluded an inauthentic electronic record may not be worth the paper it isn't written on.
It found governments at all levels were failing to adequately create a permanent record and that failure is resulting in the loss of huge amounts of electronic government information.
"Titles that are 'born digital' and have not been retained for preservation and permanent public access are likely to be lost forever upon removal from a government agency Web site," it says.
"New information and communication technologies are transforming the very meaning of the term preservation. Unfortunately, however, the AALL survey results revealed that no state is comprehensively addressing these challenges. In many places, electronic records are still simply viewed more as a convenience than as the integral part of the governance process they have become. In an attempt to compensate, some states convert Web site and other electronic records and publications to paper or microform as a solution for preservation. But by creating the equivalent of two sets of books, one electronic and one physical, more questions than answers are created. Such confusion is likely to continue until states update their statutes to explicitly incorporate electronic government information into their public access, Freedom of Information or depository laws.
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