African countries come together to address gaps in managing digital information for open government
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On April 22 and April 29, 2016 representatives from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Sierre Leone, South Africa, and Tanzania came together in a virtual South-South Knowledge exchange hosted by the World Bank in collaboration with the Open Government Partnership to discuss an issue of mounting concern: managing records and information to support open government. These countries – committed to the goal of open government, and a number with new right to information laws and open data initiatives - were motivated by increasing recognition that their commitments to make information open cannot be fully realized until they increase their capacity to manage records and information, especially the growing amount of information in digital form.
The 2016 World Development Report has raised essential concerns about the risks to digital dividends for development. To get the most out of the digital revolution, the report observes, countries need to work on strengthening regulations that ensure competition among businesses, adapting workers’ skills to the demands of the new economy, and ensuring that institutions are accountable. The risk to digital dividends is nowhere greater than in those countries where there is a lack of the regulations, skills and institutions able to manage digital records, information and data.
A survey completed in preparation for the discussions on April 29, confirms this finding: 85 percent of participating countries have digitized their public records, but only 16 percent are storing digitized records and information in secure, professionally managed digital repositories that will ensure they can access good quality information over time. Seventy-one percent of countries recognize that e-mail is being used to conduct government business but, in an equal number of countries, public officials are using their personal email accounts and there are no policies in place to capture e-mails. A further 85 percent of countries felt that they did not have sufficient policies and procedures in place to manage records in digital format in support of open government.
Countries have begun to take action to address these issues. Some have changed the reporting lines of the National Archives to give this institution more prominence at the center of government as the agency, or one of the key agencies, responsible for government records and information; others have updated their public records laws or are planning to do so. Sierre Leone has included strengthening records management as one of its country’s OGP commitments, and other countries are working on making similar commitments.
All countries agreed that key challenges remain. More than half the countries reported that their staff had had no training in managing and preserving digital records and recognized an urgent need for technical assistance to provide such training. Countries also saw a need for updated legislation to ensure that management of digital records and information by all state institutions is properly coordinated. They also pointed to the need to raise awareness across civil society organizations about records and information management challenges and their link to open government. And, no countries felt that they had sufficient financial resources to address the issue of digital records and information management.
Participants all recognized that they had no time to lose, and needed to work urgently on strengthening capacity to manage digital information if their countries are to avoid digital divides and to reap digital dividends.
This is a much needed initiative. Public officials using their personal email accounts to conduct government business is a disaster waiting to happen.