Records and their role in society

Records are the evidence of actions and decisions, and therefore trustworthy records are the pillars of accountability and transparency. According to ISO 15489-1 (2001, p. 7) records are “information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business.” ISO 15489-1 provides best practice guidance on how records should be managed to ensure they are authentic, reliable, complete, unaltered, and usable. It is further argued in the guidelines of the International Council on Archives that a record is “not just a collection of data, but is the consequence or product of an event and therefore linked to a business activity. A distinguishing feature of records is that their content must exist in a fixed form, that is, be a fixed representation of the business transaction” (International Council on Archives, 2008a, p. 11). In order for a document to be referred to as a record, it should have the following characteristics:

  • • Authenticity—The record can be proven to be what it purports to be, to have been created or sent by the person that created or sent it, and to have been created or sent at the time it is purported to have occurred.
  • • Reliability—The record can be trusted as a full and accurate representation of the transac- tion(s) to which they attest, and can be depended on in the course of subsequent transactions.
  • • Integrity—The record is complete and unaltered, and protected against unauthorized alteration. This characteristic is also referred to as “inviolability.”
  • • Usability—The record can be located, retrieved, preserved, and interpreted (International Council on Archives, 2008a).

Shepherd (2006) looked at the role of records in the public sector and postulated that records are kept because they have the following values:

  • • They enable decisions to be made and actions taken and hence provide access to precedents and policies, and evidence of what was done or decided in the past.
  • • They enable organizations to guard against fraud and to protect their rights and assets.
  • • They support accountability and organizations are accountable in many ways, to meet legal, regulatory, and fiscal requirements, undergo audits and inspections, or provide explanations for what was done. Internally, records are used to prove or assess performance. External accountability is especially important to public sector bodies, which are responsible for their actions to government and the wider public.
  • • They may also be used for cultural purposes for research, to promote awareness and understanding of corporate history. The wider community also has expectations of transparency in public service, the protection of rights and the maintenance of sources for collective memory.

Therefore records attest the transactions that take place in an organization and it is their evidentiary value that makes them different from documents. A record has to be maintained in a manner that sustains its integrity, authenticity, and reliability. These characteristics are a challenge to maintain in the digital environment. Therefore, a record’s structure, context, and metadata are critical to its authentication. The structure is related to how the record is recorded and includes the use of symbols, layout, format, and medium. Electronic records however have a physical and logical structure. The physical structure of an electronic record is variable and is dependent on soft and hardware. The logical structure constitutes the relationship of a record’s component parts, which make it intelligible. The context of a record is vital when it comes to understanding the links it has had with its administrative and functional environment which created it. Yet metadata which is defined as data about data, covers the contextual information, content and structure and is key to the management of records for long term (International Council on Archives, 2008b).

Records are a means of power that governments use not only to exercise control over citizens, but also as a means of citizens’ empowerment. They are instruments that governments can use to build trust in government institutions and hence a foundation of accountability, where their integrity and authenticity is well managed (International Records Management Trust, 2000). Freedoms of expression and access to information are cornerstones of modern democracies. Through access to government records the citizens can assess the performance of government, call for responsibility and accountability, demand compensation for injustice, and enhance their knowledge and freely evolve opinions. It is stated in the Council of Europe’s report of 2009 (The Council of Europe, 2009) that access to public records is of paramount importance in a pluralistic and democratic society. The right to access public records therefore:

  • • provides a source of information for the public;
  • • helps the public to form an opinion on the state of society and on public authorities; and
  • • fosters the integrity, efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of public authorities, so

helping affirm their legitimacy.

The report further states that all government records are in principle public and that the public can only be denied access if it is for the protection of other rights and legitimate interests. In order to fulfill these objectives, adequate, efficient and accountable records management procedures are required. Transparency, accountability, and good governance hinge on how well governments document their operations and the interactions they have with the citizens. The information that governments generate must be trustworthy and complete. Government records make up government archives and Iacovino (2010, p. 183) quoted Eastwood who referred to “archives as arsenals of democratic accountability and continuity into society and into its very corporate and social fabric.” Bishop Desmond Tutu once postulated that archives contain records that are “a potent bulwark against human rights violations” (Wilson, 2012). In order to promote access, government information has to be well managed.

The trend towards greater transparency continues and many countries have adopted Freedom of Information laws. In Sweden, for example, all government institutions have the obligation to manage the information that they receive and produce to promote the right to access public records (Granstrom, Lundquist, & Fredriksson,

2000). Access to public records hinges on good records management systems. It would be difficult for any government to promote the Freedom of Information legislation without a well-functioning records management system, to facilitate the capture, management, search, preservation, retrieval, and dissemination of records regardless of format. It is also important that the information that is put in the public domain is complete, authentic, and usable and therefore the provenance of the records that the public accesses matters. Poor records management regimes are likely to cause loss of corporate memory, inefficiency and an inability to meet accountability and legislative requirements (International Council on Archives, 2008a).

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