By Barry, Rick
Information Management , Vol. 38, No. 6
On March 2, 2004, the Washington Post broke a story concerning lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water. Neighboring Arlington County, Virginia shares the same source, and the article noted discrepancies in the county's public-facing Web site.
A follow-up front-page story the next day stated:
"Arlington County officials began recommending yesterday that pregnant women and young children drink only tap water that has been flushed or filtered, after preliminary tests of water in eight homes showed that five had elevated levels of lead ... As late as mid-afternoon yesterday, the county's Web site carried the headline 'Lead Not a Concern in County Water: The Web site did not mention that, on February 23, the county's Public Works Department quietly began sampling water in Arlington homes built before 1988, the last year lead solder was used."
Feeling sure that the contamination problem did not affect Arlington, officials had decided to leave the "Lead Not a Concern in County Water" announcement on the county Web site until they received results from a special testing program.
The story illustrates the importance of Web sites as sources--possibly the only sources--of many organizational records and the risks of not properly capturing such records in trustworthy recordkeeping systems. The story was picked up in local TV news coverage and received so much publicity that the U.S. Congress held hearings on the subject. It became the source of daily reporting by Post investigative reporters for the entire month, exposing accountability issues in agencies at the federal, regional, and local government levels, including Web site representations and e-mail communications.
This is one of several recent news stories in which, to the embarrassment of the organizations involved, journalists have reported on the sudden and controversial alteration or deletion of Web content in apparent attempts to "change history."
The fact is that Web sites produce official representations to the public. Plainly stated, Web sites make records, but they do not keep records in ways that match up to sound recordkeeping requirements. Chief executive officers (CEOs), attorneys, chief information officers (CIOs), auditors, and content, records, and other information managers: Beware.
Web Sites as "Recordmaking" Systems
The use of Web-based e-business applications on Web platforms is almost ubiquitous in the private sector. E-government applications (including Web-based) have become increasingly prevalent in the public sector as well, with mandates at various government levels to implement citizen access to e-gov services in the 2003-2005 timeframe.
Moreover, citizens are demanding such access. A 2004 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey report "How Americans Get in Touch with Government" found that 97 million adult Americans (77 percent of Internet users) participated in e-gov in 2003 by visiting Web sites or e-mailing government officials to conduct transactions (e.g., paying bills, obtaining licenses), obtaining information, or solving problems. This reflected a growth of 50 percent from 2002.
"E-Gov Alliance" is a collaborative effort among several communities of Redmond, Washington--Bellevue, Bothell, Issaquah, Kenmore, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Sammamish, Snoqualmie, and Woodinville--to provide a unified approach to automated building processes and services. MyBuildingPermit.com is a model example of Web-based e-gov at the local government level. This multijurisdiction system allows local citizens to apply for, pay for, and receive electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and other permits--all Web-based public records--for each of the participating cities. (Editor's note: See "Why Records Cooperatives?" pg. 49.) The customer-friendly system distributes system costs across participating governments, significantly reducing their individual total cost of ownership (TCO), a primary concern of CIOs. …