Electronic Records Management Guidelines
Web Content Management
The impact of technology on government not only affects how government agencies complete tasks internally, it also influences the way those agencies interact with the public at large. The popularity of the Internet has resulted in government agencies growing increasingly reliant on websites to meet the information needs of citizens. As a result, agencies need to manage their web content effectively to ensure that citizens are able to find the information they want easily and are able to determine if it is accurate and current.
Web content management makes government accountable. Because websites may contain records that document government activity and the use of tax dollars, just as any paper record does, government agencies must manage web content with a carefully developed and implemented policy. Therefore, each agency should develop a plan for the management of public records maintained on its website. The plan should integrate into each agency’s overall records management program.
For more information on the legal framework you must consider when developing a web content management strategy refer to the Legal Framework chapter of these guidelines and the Minnesota State Archives’ Preserving and Disposing of Government Records. Particularly the specifics of the:
- Official Records Act [Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 15.17] which mandates that government agencies must keep records to maintain their accountability. Agencies using the web for business should have a records management plan that explicitly addresses proper handling of records posted online.
- Records Management Act [Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 138.17] which indicates, like other records, your website records must be maintained according to established records retention schedules.
Additional legal considerations include:
- Public versus not-public. Agencies must determine which website records are public and which are not-public as described in the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA). For example, you may gather and store confidential data via a web interface. This data should be protected from public access as outlined in the MGDPA.
- Record or non-record. The State of Minnesota, as outlined in the Official Records Act, does not differentiate among the media on which records are created or stored. The content of the web file determines whether the file is a record.
- Web Accessibility Concerns. Official records must be accessible to all citizens. Materials on the web are not always accessible to people with disabilities. Following web design standards will help make the content available to the most users. For more information on accessibility issues please review the Web Content Accessibility White Paper published by the Minnesota State Archives.
As you develop your web content management policy, you will need to be familiar with the following concepts:
Your website may contain records as defined by the Official Records Act; you should manage these records as part of your comprehensive ongoing electronic records management strategy.
Records may include copies of publications like annual reports, directories, fact sheets, leaflets, newsletters and other serials, research reports, technical reports, and so forth; however the official copy of these records should be managed outside of the web environment as part of your overall records management strategy.
Records available on the web are not always published documents. Some records that people access on the web are not published to the web; the record content is pulled from a back-end database and then displayed on the web as a record. This content is generated on-demand and is controlled by user selections. The information that is used to create these records is stored elsewhere and has its own retention schedule.
Creating and maintaining a website involves a lot of people. If a web content management strategy will be developed, the process should include all those who are involved in website creation, administration, and use. Key groups to include are content creators and experts, website technical experts, website internal users, records management staff, and agency or department heads. Each group should be familiar with the agency’s policy for web content publication, removal, storage, and disposition; how the policy affects their daily work practices, including their roles and responsibilities under the policy; and the agency’s general electronic records management strategy.
Initial and on-going internal communication will be a crucial component of web management procedures and policy development because:
- Many groups are involved in the creation and administration of a website.
- Much of a website’s content is interrelated.
- Website content tends to change frequently.
Consider establishing a formal mechanism to keep stakeholders informed of each other’s activities related to the website. This communication allows your agency to control the content and trustworthiness your website records, since all stakeholders will know when and why content changes.
Managing web content is an ongoing task. Websites are used to inform the public on recent and upcoming events as well as provide access large amounts of information from an agency. In general, a good website should follow basic web practices including but not limited to:
- Use web design standards. The W3C is a good source for web design standards on HTML a & CSS, scripting and Ajax, graphics, audio and video, accessibility, internationalization, privacy, the mobile web and even math on the web as well as on general architecture principles, identifiers (names and addresses), protocols, and formats. Using standards increases accessibility for all users; Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act also provides information on accessibility concerns.
- Version control. Because websites are updated constantly by different individuals and groups, you should develop a method for designating and controlling versions. Make sure the content is kept up to date. Including the date last modified on the website will inform users how recent the content is.
- File Naming. Consider establishing a file naming protocol for web pages to help ensure ease of management, usability of the site, and internal communication about contents. For more information about website file naming, refer to the File Naming chapter of these guidelines.
- Metadata. Use a standard metadata set to define and describe web content. Dublin Core is often used. This will help search engines find and rank your web pages.
- Organization. Make information easy to find and read. Use clear navigation methods including breadcrumb trails and avoid using flashing graphics and colors that are hard on the eyes.
- Understand the effects of any changes you make to your webpage. For example, moving or removing a page may result in broken links or page not found error messages. Consider adding a redirect page or using persistent identifiers to help users find relocated information, as broken links may reduce site creditability.
Due to the ever changing nature of websites, continuous management of these records is required. Web pages, documents, or files may need to be removed from a website or relocated to another location for a number of reasons including:
- The information or publication no longer reflects your agency’s current policy or has been superseded.
- The retention requirements of the publication have been met; the official copy has been disposed of and the online copy needs to be as well.
- The publication is perceived as no longer having value.
- Files are moved due to site reorganization.
If you do remove or move documents consider that fact that what the agency views as no longer important or relevant, others may still find useful or valuable for continuing reference or research or for historical interest. Also consider that others may have referenced or linked to individual resources on your website on other websites, publications, catalogs, or printed reports. If it is known that the records you want to remove are highly referenced, consider moving it to another location and using a redirect page or a persistent identifier to help users find relocated information.
As more and more records are accessible on the web and more and more records are being created directly on the web, it is important to monitor and evaluate the information that is available on the web. On one hand you must manage the day to day website and manage the content people have access to. Is the information up-to-date, accurate, and trustworthy? Do the links work? On the other hand, the web has become a place to create records and it is also important to evaluate what content is being created on the website and if that information constitutes a record as defined by the Official Record Act.
If they are records, general records management issues come into play and the records must remain accessible for as long as required. As the web is ever changing, one way to preserve websites is to capture snapshots in time of individual pages, sections, or entire websites. These snapshots, if taken at regular time intervals will document changes overtime as well as keep original web records available. This process is often called web archiving. The parameters for archiving a website through available software or contracted services can be set up to include as much as or as little of a site as desired.
As your agency expands the role of its websites to conduct agency business, it may become important for accountability purposes to document your entire website as a record rather than individual pages. Available software programs and contracted services enable you to reconstruct your entire site. In addition to capturing official website content, capturing all short-term projects with web content may also be done. For example, an agency that sets up a short-term website for a legislative initiative that includes a bulletin board for key people to discuss an initiative should, for public records purposes, take website snapshots that will allow reconstruction of the site completely as it existed at a given time. The frequency of capturing these snapshots will depend on how often web content changes.
During snapshot capture, metadata is also captured. This metadata may be basic information about the date and time of the capture, lists of the pages captures, and time the captures took or some archiving services also capture information about why, who, and what the captured content contains. Using metadata standards during web design will add to the data available during capture.
As part of ensuring that you capture enough information in a record to demonstrate the record’s content, context, and structure, you will need to capture metadata. Many Minnesota government agencies have elected to use the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set as a standard (NISO Standard Z39.85; ISO Standard 15836). Some of the basic Dublin Core metadata elements include title, subject, description, creator, and date. (For more information, refer to the Metadata chapter of these guidelines).
Key Issues to Consider
Now that you are familiar with some of the basic concepts of web content management, you can use the questions below to discuss how those concepts relate to your agency.
You will want to discuss changes to content, organization, and administration over time; the preservation of web materials; determining who is responsible for updates and other tasks, and building staff awareness of policies and procedures. Pay special attention to the questions posed by the legal framework, including the need for public accountability, managing public and not-public records, and following records retention schedules.
- Examine your current use of the web and understand your expectations for future use. For example, you may currently publish a newsletter in paper format, but in the future, you may publish the same newsletter on the web.
- Understand the transactions that are completed online as well as the communication (e.g., bulletin boards, live chats, posted e-mails) that takes place via the website that may become records.
- Understand how to preserve website content over time and how to build this into the overall management of the website.
- Develop a plan on how to build staff awareness and compliance with web content policies, including establishing procedures to maintain and update content by authorized individuals only.
- Review pages regularly for quality, accuracy, and timeliness.
Technical considerations include:
- The site should be accessible to the most common browsers.
- Backups should be done regularly to a secondary medium. (This is not equivalent to archival preservation of the site.)
- When possible, use standard formats that are open source and non-proprietary.
- Maintain a site index or site map.
- What information will citizens seek on our website? How can we ensure that we make the information easy to find? How can we assure those seeking information of the trustworthiness of the information?
- Which elements of our website are records? Where should the official copies be stored? Are the record series included on an approved retention schedule?
- Do we need to do periodic website snapshots? How long should snapshots be kept? How can we build web content and snapshot archiving into overall website management?
- How can we build staff awareness and compliance with web content archiving procedures?
- Who will authorize website content reorganization and removal?
Web Content Management, Annotated List of Resources
Next Chapter, Electronic and Digital Signatures
Electronic Records Management Guidelines, March 2012, Version 5.
Links verified March 12, 2012.