Avoiding litter on the Information Superhighway:
Electronic Document Management in Australian government agencies

Tom Worthington

Chair of the IESC Electronic Document Management Subcommittee

Playing for Keeps Conference, Australian Archives, Canberra 1994 (proceedings 1995)


The paper reports progress of the work of the Electronic Data Management Subcommittee of the Commonwealth Government's Information Exchange Steering Committee (IESC EDMSC). The metaphor of litter on a highway is used to illustrate the risks with uncontrolled use of electronic documents in Government agencies. The author argues that most inter and intra-agency communications in the Commonwealth will changeover during 1994 to electronic communications. This has made the need for procedures and standards pressing. The sub-committee produced a Principles Executive Overview Document in 1994 and plans Implementation Guidelines in early 1995.

About the Author: Tom Worthington

Mr. Worthington is senior policy adviser on data administration standards for the Australian Department of Defence. He is Defence representative on a number of inter-departmental IT committees, member of the Standards Australia committee on Software Engineering and chair of the IESC Electronic Data Management Subcommittee.

Mr Worthington is Director of the Community Affairs Board of the Australian Computer Society, a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery, member of the Internet Society and an affiliate member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. He is a member of various IT special interest groups and committees.

About the Information Exchange Steering Committee (IESC)

The IESC is an advisory body, responsible for providing guidance to Commonwealth agencies on policies and strategic directions relating to Information Technology and related issues, including telecommunications.

About the IESC Electronic Data Management Subcommittee (EDMSC)

Towards the end of 1993 the Electronic Data Management Subcommittee (EDMSC), a special subcommittee of the Information Exchange Steering Committee (IESC), was established to consider the development of implementation guidelines addressing principles outlined in the IESC's publication "The Management of Electronic Documents in the Australian Public Service". The subcommittee, composed of representatives from several Commonwealth agencies, with invited industry participation, is chaired by Tom Worthington, Senior Policy Adviser, Data Administration Standards, Department of Defence.


In Commonwealth Government IT News, Vol 5. No. 1, January 1994: "Why Should We Worry About Electronic Data Management? I wrote:

By December 1994 I expect that most inter and intra-agency communications in the Commonwealth will be electronic, not paper. Current paper memos, minutes and letters will be replaced by completely electronic equivalents. The explosive increase in the use of facsimile will have started to decline. As most communications will be created, transmitted and received electronically, there will be a demand for them to be stored and archived electronically. It will not be acceptable to ask people to print a copy and put it on a paper file. ...

Use of E-mail creates a large and pressing problem for records management. The rate of take-up of E-mail is far faster than for facsimile. Staff who are already trained in preparing documents on screen will commence sending them from the screen, as soon as the facility is made available. Unless policies, procedures, services and standards are in place, much of the Commonwealth's records will be at risk."

Since that time the pace of change has accelerated. The InfoBhan or Information Superhighway has entered the common vocabulary. Use of Internet based information services is doubling every few months. Some of these services, particularly the World Wide Web, show great potential for the distribution of Government information. However they also further increase the risk to orderly record management.

Avoiding litter on the Information Superhighway

In keeping with the InfoBahn (Information Highway) metaphor I will use the example of roadside littering. There are occasional reports of sensitive Government documents being found on roadsides or at land-fill sites. We need to avoid this becoming common occurrence on the InfoBhan.

Electronic documents need to be cared for so they do not become electronic litter along the side of our information highway. No competent record manager would send a set of documents unrecorded in an open container by road. The documents could become lost or damaged in transit. In the same way electronic documents need to be secured for transit and tracked to see they arrive safely.

Document Formats for Government record keeping

Those responsible for government documents must take a cautious approach to new technological developments. The secure retention of documents must be first priority. Efficiency with new technology or processes is a lower priority. Changes must not place at risk current document holdings. New technical developments must be reversible, if necessary.

Changing document formats: It is essential that documents are retained in a format that can be read over their planned lifetime. It may be necessary to compromise the features and efficiency of the document management system to ensure this. The most stable long term formats for document storage are the simplest, oldest and in IT terms most primitive.

For images the most stable format is Group 3 facsimile format. For text the most stable format is IA5 (commonly known as ASCII). These formats provide for only black and white images and unformatted text, but are likely to be available long term. These formats are also more efficient in use of storage than more complex formats.

There is currently no standard, supported format for formatted, compound documents (formatted text and images). Standard Generalised Markup Language (SGML) may emerge as a long term format over the next year. SGML encodes formatting (such as titles, italics and bold) as IA5 text. This provides a conservative set up from unformatted text.

Hyper-Text Markup Language (HTML) is an implementation of SGML developed by the academic and research community for electronic publishing on the Internet. The service that delivers HTML documents over the Internet is called the World Wide Web (WWW). HTML may emerge as the default format for SGML documents, due to its large installed base and available free software. An enhancement of HTML, called HTML+, is under development to address some of the limitations of HTML.

Microsoft RTF provides a reasonably stable, widely supported interim defacto standard. However it may be appropriate to retain text and image versions of documents for long term retrieval.

HTML by default as the Government document standard

In the absence of any alternative, HTML may become the defacto standard for Government document interchange. This could occur in mid 1995.

SGML is widely acknowledged as a suitable standard for interchanging documents. However SGML is a complex standard with many possible implementations. There is a limited range of easy to use and affordable SGML software available.

In contrast HTML is a defacto standard, which implements a limited subset of SGML. HTML implements one SGML Document Type Definition (DTD). A large range of free and low cost easy to use software tools are available for preparing and viewing HTML documents.

Individuals in Government agencies are now implementing HTML, in the absence of any endorsed alternative.

Most of the E-mail infrastructure is already in place

Personal computers are now being connected to Local Area Networks (LANs) and corporate Wide Area Networks (WANs). This represents a considerable investment in capital, running costs and training. Organisations are making this investment to be able to provide corporate computer applications and personal applications, such as word processing.

The common way to prepare a document now is for authors to sit at a personal computer and prepare the document themselves, using word processing and other software. They then print out the document and either fax it, or send it by conventional mail.

The cost of adding full electronic storage and transmission to such a system are minimal. The organisation needs only to install the communications software for each user. With one connection from the corporate WAN to a public network, all staff then have the capability to send electronic documents to all persons on the global network. This includes all staff in other connected agencies, companies and private individuals.

The public will demand the government use electronic distribution

There are currently approximately 400,000 Australians with access to public data networks. I expect this number will increase to more than 2 million by December 1994. Those people can be expected to demand that government agencies use the InfoBahn for disseminating information and for correspondence.

Many Commonwealth employees will be teleworking

Government employees can now apply to work from home for up to three days per week. It is unlikely to be practical to provide them with paper documents at home. The obvious solution is to keep the documents safely stored in electronic format on the agency's computer system and allow access from home, by computer network or disk copy. This will increase the demand for electronic document access.

IESC Electronic Document Management Subcommittee addressing the problem

The EDMSC's program of work for 1994 has addressed this problem at several levels, beginning with the production of a Principles Executive Overview released in September 1994, followed by implementation guidelines scheduled for early 1995.

For further details

Author's address

Tom Worthington
Senior Policy Adviser, Data Administration Standards
Communications and Information Systems Engineering Branch
Department of Defence
Room B-3-25, Russell Offices, Canberra ACT 2600, Australia

NOTE: For current address see: http://www.tomw.net.au/


Australian Government Open Systems Interconnection Profile, Information Exchange Steering Committee, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra 1990

ISO 8879:1986, Information Processing Text and Office Systems -- Standard Generalised Markup Language (SGML)


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See also