An electronic records and document management project has effectively brought the paperless office to the Scottish Executive, the devolved government in Scotland. Helen Beckett reports on the challenges and the benefits
While it may seem that this particular Holy Grail has been some time coming, the system achieves an integrated and compliant system for the future.
Outcomes to date are very tangible: a 500-metre-high stack of paper has been binned over the past 18 months, and the project has introduced time savings worth at least £500,000 a year.
Disposal of paper records has liberated costly office space and improved workers' environments. Most importantly, the executive sees the system as a platform for responding to Scottish ministers, citizens and stakeholders.
The Scottish Executive's function is to produce legislation and policy across a range of public services, including education, culture, industry and the justice system.
"Virtually everything we do is around information creation and management," says Liz Ure, head of information strategy at the executive. And, like all organs of central government, the executive has a duty to keep records maintained to rigorous standards.
"Absolutely, the executive's policy was that the record was stored on paper," says Ure. But she says the position was becoming harder to maintain.
Andy Kinvig, delivery manager, devolved government, at LogicaCMG, agrees. "The e-government initiative is designed to make people work more effectively and efficiently and quicker. The drive is to work electronically."
Day-to-day business conversations at the Scottish Executive were often conducted in Microsoft Outlook, and staff printed paper versions of e-mails to create an official record. "However, we had inadvertently created a world where the paper records were not always complete," says Ure.
Before the project was rolled out, employees of the executive were using both automated and paper systems. Differences in storage styles between the two media created a fresh set of problems. Paper lends itself naturally to the sequential ordering of files, whereas e-documents can be stored and labelled in any number of ways.
"Technology encourages people to store information in silos. E-mails can be shared, but more often they are stored on personal drives," says Ure. Outlook enables people to set up an individual or shared e-mail drive, allowing them to file e-mails away. "The e-world allows people to hide things from the rest of the world if you are not careful," says Ure.
Coexistence of paper and electronic systems was also complicated by the different styles in the creation and amendment of documents.
Document management and version control becomes more important as multiple versions of e-documents flourish. "The e-world allows people to easily make many more changes. In the old world, documents were sent to the typing pool and so there were fewer changes," says Ure.
Finally, the proliferation of versions was compounded by a big drive across the Scottish Executive to make processes more open and transparent, says Kinvig. "The outcome of this is that more people are contributing to documents. Version control was mainly in a headers and footers approach, but there were lots of different brands of version control within this too."
All these issues added up to an urgent need for a modern, integrated system, the management group of the executive agreed in 2001. But the they did not want to deliver something in haste that was not robust. "We did not want to move from a paper world that everyone understood to something that was unclear," says Ure.
There were few suitable models of government document management implementations available to learn from. Some local councils had implemented document management systems, but this was specifically for revenue collection and benefits. "We were looking for something that would cope with all processes," says Ure.
An in-house option was briefly considered before the executive decided to buy off-the-shelf to cater for its increasingly sophisticated document management needs.
The decision to shop for software satisfied its policy to use packages wherever possible, and also made sense given the necessary level of compliance.
Just as the Enron scandal is still affecting the private sector, record management is a big topic for the public sector. "The system had to ensure documents complied with the Freedom of Information Act, the Data Protection Act, plus government interoperability frameworks," says Ure. The latter included the E-government Interoperability Framework, the E-government Metadata Standard and the Integrated Public Sector Vocabulary.
The National Archive of Scotland provides guidance on how to manage records, plus there is an equivalent body in England that specifies how to maintain electronic records.
"The beauty of an off-the-shelf product is that someone else has sat down and designed it with these constraints in mind," says Ure.
Plus, there is a range of features that accompany specialist products that would not be achieved in-house. Compliance requires disposal schedules and review dates of documents to be built in. Crucially, it is necessary to produce records to quality standards that have "evidential weight" and are legally admissible in court.
"Basically you have to ensure there is a very comprehensive audit trail," says Kinvig. A surprising number of the document management products on the market do not provide a sufficiently robust audit trail to satisfy the courts. This was a pitfall the Scottish Executive had to avoid.
Because it is a government agency, the executive complied with the EU prescribed negotiated procurement process. "We visited a lot of reference sites and also got prospective suppliers to set up model offices, which our usability team tested against core processes. The usability aspect was absolutely key.
"There were a load of 'must haves' - that the system had to support - and a load of 'desirables' that included scanning, content management and website publishing," says Ure.
Eventually, Objective's Enterprise Content Management was selected out of a shortlist of four, scoring highest across a number of criteria including price, usability and functional requirements.
The project was divided into four parts: business process mapping, procurement, IT and change management. Because each of these four project components was comprehensive in its own right, the four strands ran in parallel, and Kinvig used the Prince2 programme management method to bring the pieces together
Given the need for the system to enable open and flexible working, the executive had to rethink how it created, stored and shared documents.
The executive therefore spent 18 months doing requirements analysis in mixed teams comprising IT and business staff from the Scottish Executive and consultants from LogicaCMG.
"All the different departments started off believing they had a unique method for transactions and processes. But an important by-product of the requirements analysis was that we convinced people that they are part of generic processes," says Kinvig.
The team whittled document-related activities down to 13 generic processes including paying grants, primary legislation, finance systems and developing policy. Once these processes had been identified, the next step was to design a file plan. "This is basically how you organise your information," says Kinvig.
The Scottish Executive was trying get away from the rigid organisational structure and needed to think more radically. It decided on a topical file plan where people file according to topic at the highest level, and it filters at organisation at a lower level.
"At the time it represented a radical departure because most people store at organisational level," says Ure.
Having a logical plan was one thing, getting people to embrace it was another. "One of the substantial issues we had to face was changing this culture of where you store things. It was a hearts and minds thing that information is a shared resource," says Ure.
Ease of use certainly encouraged people to use the system. "The system treats the document as one version but it is multi-layered and the user can drill down into previous, historical versions," says Kinvig.
The IT architecture also had to reflect the new focus on sharing and openness, so a distributed server environment was selected to provide the necessary resilience and access.
"A distributed configuration offered big business continuity advantages," says Jerry McLafferty, systems manager at the Scottish Executive.
The entire project was conducted using in-house IT skills supplemented by specialists from Objective and LogicaCMG. Managing a large network connecting offices in Edinburgh, Brussels, Glasgow and London meant the executive has a 200-plus team with infrastructure skills in networking, databases and clustering.
Obvious outcomes are efficiency gains with the elimination of multiple document copies and the reduction in physical storage. Most importantly, a system that enables openness and collaboration was necessary to respond to the demands of Scottish ministers, citizens and stakeholders.
Distributed configuration aids information sharing
A total of 20 electronic record and document servers have been deployed at 14 different locations in Scotland, spanning the main cities and outlets in the Highlands and islands.
Each server comprises three components: the local data store where all content and documents are saved, the objective record management application, and finally the Oracle Failsafe database, which hosts all content labels or metadata.
Thus users can search and access content held in any location given they have the appropriate user privileges. Up-to-date search tools are the key to effective information sharing and this part has been distributed.
A master server pulls metadata updates from all satellite sites every 20 minutes and in turn replicates the new version back to them.
If the central server should fail, each site could then operate autonomously. And in order to provide local resilience at the sites that serve ministers, the servers are clustered locally, managed by Microsoft Cluster Administrator. Tivoli Storage Manager manages the local and offsite backups.
"The most challenging aspect of a distributed server architecture is when you have to patch or upgrade components simultaneously," says Jerry McLafferty, systems manager at the Scottish Executive.
"Traditionally, you could do one at a time but because of the dependencies you have to do it all in one go."
At present McLafferty is updating from version 6 to the more service oriented version 7 of Objective.
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This was first published in September 2006