16 January 2024

All right, stop! Collaborate and listen - and then save, save, save

| Chris Johnson
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Collaborative file-sharing platforms could cause problems for the APS if not addressed. Photo: File.

Let’s talk about filing.

‘Boring’, I hear you say. Sure, yet the conversations I’ve been having with the Australian Public Service of late are not dull at all.

They are actually quite concerning.

There is a growing sentiment that valuable information is being lost forever because not enough attention is being paid to saving the whole process of policy development.

Across the APS, agencies are moving from filing work (work-in-progress, as well as completed tasks) on their computer drives to using more collaborative platforms like Microsoft SharePoint.

There is quite a wholesale shift to such systems and there are many advantages to using these document management and storage platforms.

Easy access, systems integration and effortless sharing of information are the big ones.

In a word, it’s all about the collaboration.

Everyone assigned to a task and given access to a shared document can go into the file and add their thinking, edit work that’s already there, update directions, and delete what might be deemed to be no longer needed.

READ ALSO Flexible working conditions hitting home as some APS bosses scramble to be ready

All sounds pretty schmick and for the hordes of us who use such platforms in the office, it works like a dream.

But there is a slight problem for the public service, which could be not so minor in the end.

Going by all the feedback Region has received of late, there appears to be little in place in most APS agencies that comes anywhere close to being a consistent approach to saving work that’s done ‘along the way’.

Superseded thinking is cast aside and deleted without being properly saved.

Most don’t know (or care) if their platforms can even save what they’ve just deleted to make way for their updated input.

Someone writes up an initial document and invites all and sundry to edit – add, delete, rework – which they do because you can’t be assigned to a project and not be seen to be contributing valuable input.

So when someone comes in and writes over someone else’s work without figuring out how (if) the old work can be saved, much is lost throughout the journey of the document.

Stakeholder participation is forgotten once the project has moved on from it.

When roles change and different staff are assigned to an ongoing project, the new people working on the project remain unaware of so much of what was discussed before.

In many instances, they don’t know where to find any development that progressed before their arrival.

There is also the matter of transferring information between systems that are being upgraded, so much is left behind.

A final document is naturally a completely different piece of work than how it began.

That’s the nature of good project management and policy development – that it evolves to a point where it’s ready for presentation.

But for the public service, all input into the development of policies should be saved.

The thinking behind final decisions should be easily accessible. But it’s not being kept.

Information management is generally mandatory and requires training for most public servants with any degree of responsibility.

But on any given day, if asked where something is filed, some (far too many) wouldn’t know where to start looking.

READ ALSO Cut and polish: Cooperative effort to slash regulatory red tape, boost productivity

There are good systems in place to ensure all the important stuff is kept on file for ministers and senior executives to see the final decisions that have been made.

But they’re not getting much by way of the decisions made during a project’s development that was rethought or built upon.

Those things aren’t being filed.

The whole process is important and should be saved.

By keeping it all on file, lessons can more easily be learned.

Where things went right and wrong, or what thinking caused a project to turn the way it did, and what input proved vital or otherwise, is all valuable information for a public service genuine about wanting to always do better.

And there are very significant Freedom of Information implications here.

The public has a right to know the thinking behind policy development and outcomes, and not just the final decisions.

It could hardly be described as a fun part of anyone’s job, but figuring out how and where to save work that has already been done during an ongoing project is an important task.

The onus has to be on the individual, but supervisors should make it a priority.

Everyone working on a project should work it out and save, save, save.

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Jeez, even Wikipedia saves edits. What’s wrong with these people.

Sharepoint does save previous revisions, but I think the point of the article is that it takes diligent records management to ensure previous key revisions (including key decision points) are filed appropriately and easy to find. It’s not just being able to see all past revisions, but to have context and information around them.

It’s been a while since I worked on shared documents, but as I recall, Sharepoint has a check out/check in feature where iterations of the document are ‘saved in the background’ with versioning and ‘editor details’ allowing an older version/s to be recovered. Is that still not the case?

Also, even before Sharepoint, MS Word documents had, and still have, a change tracking facility – with all edits and details of who made them available

Perhaps it’s just a matter of ensuring work practices align with the technology?

No mention in this article of the destructive effect on morale when people put in a whole lot of work to have it deleted by someone else as irrelevant and replaced with something that may be worse. People need recognition for what they do and that’s another reason to ensure saving of each edition, so it’s possible to see who are the people who contribute most value, for better allocation of skills and time in future. This is also valuable for performance reviews.

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