Metadata drives WA legal eagles

How the Department of Attorney-General and Corrective Services overcame complex document management.

Many organisations use complex document management systems to control internal content, but Western Australia's Department of Attorney-General and Corrective Services has found metadata to be a suitable alternative for managing 40 different Web sites to meet legislative requirements. David Braue explains how.

Information management is always a sore topic within legal circles, since there's so much of the stuff floating around and it can be difficult to enforce necessary information structures.

Unsurprisingly, that complexity led to trouble for the Western Australia Department of the Attorney-General and Department of Corrective Services (AGCS, previously consolidated as the Department of Justice), which several years ago set out to completely rework the way their intranet content was managed.

In the past, content on 19 AGCS Web sites was handled by a disparate group of individuals, whose varying interests and content styles had produced a broad range of Web sites for the department's various activities. Authors would come up with ideas, then approach the Public Affairs division to write and publish the information on their behalf. However, there was little consistency between the messages published on the various Web sites. In addition, content producers became a bottleneck, hindering timely production.

With legislative records management requirements pressuring government departments to improve their e-government efforts, in 2001 AGCS set about completely reworking the way its content was managed. A key element of this change would be to bring all the Web sites under one umbrella through the implementation of an appropriate content management system (CMS).

-There was a large number of uncontrolled Web sites in place, and they had grown organically outside of anyone's control," says Bob Berg, IT director with the WA Department of the Attorney-General and Department of Corrective Services. -It was a bit of a culture shock to be told that they were all going to go onto the one intranet."

Bob Berg, Western Australia Department of Attorney-General and Corrective Services IT director

After six months of investigations, the department selected Interwoven's TeamSite CMS 6 as the basis for its new content environment. Once installed, TeamSite allowed the implementation team from integrator Pretzel Logic to quickly import the existing Web content; the system's automatic versioning set the previous Web sites as the base versions, with all later changes automatically tracked and versioned from there.

Tagging attention
Use of the new TeamSite environment gave the various organisational groups a range of new content creation tools and a more consistent set of design standards to follow. One of the major elements of these standards was the requirement that the departments use metadata to tag site content to satisfy the broadened records retention requirements of Western Australia's State Records Act 2000.

A significant feature of this legislation is that each government organisation establish a formal 'recordkeeping plan' that spells out how, and for how long, each type of record will be kept. A major part of making this happen was the use of metadata to tag all published content with appropriate keywords. AGCS chose to adopt metadata according to the National Archives of Australia's 19-element Australian Government Locator Service content tagging system, which in 2002 was codified as Australian Standard AS5044.

Expecting users to enter 19 descriptive fields for each piece of content they produced was an extremely onerous task, so AGCS implemented Interwoven MetaTagger, a TeamSite add-on that allowed the system to automatically generate 16 of the 19 required metadata fields. This meant that users only had to enter the remaining three categories.

Metadata is important for far more than just keeping the department from falling foul of the State Records Act, however. More than 2,000 intranet and Web pages -- spread across around 40 different sites -- as well as a slew of normal corporate documents, can now be searched with ease.

-With metadata captured in the system, we have actually learned to better manage the content going into the system," says Berg. -Metadata lets you refine the information and, thanks to the automatic metatagging, instead of returning 3,000 results you get three ... and they're the ones you wanted."

-A couple of years ago we had a heck of a time convincing people that metadata was [important]," he adds, -but now that they're getting good results, they understand the value there. I don't think we would contemplate going anywhere with a large number of Web sites without the metadata."

As well as enhancing the department's search capabilities, the metadata lends important structure to the versioning information that is automatically created and managed using TeamSite. Complete versioning and control over the content means that the content can be rolled back to any point in time, satisfying the records management requirements that have been placed upon the department.

The human factor
Improved content searching may have clarified the value of the new system, but the biggest change within the organisation came as the Interwoven system enabled individual content producers to take charge of their own information.

Although all content still goes through Public Affairs staff for review before publication, the authors can write the content that they want and manage its versioning; review by Public Affairs staff happens automatically and quickly thanks to the system's built-in workflow capabilities. This has sped the flow of information through the organisation, since content producers no longer have to wait for someone else to write the information they want to post.

A couple of years ago we had a heck of a time convincing people that metadata was important but now that they're getting good results, they understand the value.

-The uptake we've had from the business areas has been very positive, if just for the fact they can control their own content without having to physically go to others," says Berg. While financial details for the Interwoven software were not revealed, he believes that "from the end user's perspective, life is certainly a lot easier and they feel they've got more control over their own destiny. They understand they're a lot more responsible for what they put on there, and there are a lot of good ideas flowing from business areas as to what they would like to see."

This fundamental change in content management policies didn't happen overnight, however: -The culture change of devolving accountability for content was something new for us, and took a little while to get organised," Berg concedes.

Project implementers addressed this issue by finding representatives of each business area who were willing to champion the project's cause within their own areas. Those champions served as liaisons between the individual user communities and the overall project team, helping decentralise the responsibility and increase the buy-in for the project.

Several years down the track, buy-in is by all accounts no longer a problem. With both a metadata framework in place and the cultural issues around decentralisation of responsibility resolved, stakeholders at every level are continually improving the system. Regular tweaks to the publication workflow address usability issues raised during everyday work, and the elimination of bottlenecks has made it immediately obvious to all just how much better the new environment is than the old one.

-The fact that we can now find any document reasonably well, and that we can deliver new content and changes much faster to the Web site, has certainly been a step forward," says John Dicker, portal administrator with AGCS. -It has been a bit of a journey to get here, but it has happened in a well controlled manner and we have managed the business processes effectively. Importantly, people can consistently find the information they need."

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