Features: December 10th, 2004

Recovering from Disaster in the Public Sector

Dr. Johannes C. Scholtes

It is not necessary to be a regular viewer of the news channels or the evening bulletin to be aware of the impact disasters can have on a community, with public services disrupted, infrastructure seriously damaged and livelihoods destroyed or changed forever.

There can be little or no warning that a disaster is about to occur, and the more insignificant sounding events can often be the most destructive to the successful provision of key services by local and central government. While extreme weather conditions or a blaze can physically destroy buildings, equipment and valuable records, a simple short-term failure in power or communications infrastructure can have equally devastating and far-reaching effects.

Theft, burglary, computer hacking, civil unrest and acts of terrorism can all restrict the ability of public sector organisations to fulfil their obligations. If public bodies are to assist communities in their struggle to return to normality in the aftermath of catastrophic events, they should recognise that IT can play an important role in their long-term strategy. Although the latest archiving and document management tools should not be mistaken as the ‘holy grail’ in disaster recovery, they represent a ground-breaking development that can boost the UK’s public sector in minimising the damage caused and dramatically reducing recovery times. They should be viewed as a single – but certainly key – component in the disaster recovery toolbox.

Failure to plan for disasters

Unfortunately recent surveys have indicated that many organisations are unaware of the benefits this technology is capable of bringing. In the winter of 2000, Gartner conducted a survey of IT managers and discovered that over 60% of the businesses surveyed did not have a basic plan to mitigate the effects of disaster. Unfortunately, even after the events of 9/11, many organisations still had not made serious preparations for quick disaster recovery.

Almost a full year later, Gartner issued another report that indicated a continuation of this trend. Many organisations may be closely evaluating their level of disaster preparedness, but most have not fully identified plans to address the disaster recovery shortcomings in their operations.

Research by KPMG also helps to illustrate the extent of widespread avoidance of disaster contingency planning. This research found that 81% of US companies believe their organisations are susceptible to attack by terrorists and other outside predators, and yet 47% of these organisations do not have a crisis plan in place or even a procedure or method to ensure their readiness.

There is scope here for the public sector, not just in the UK but across Europe and North America, to lead the way in disaster recovery policy and planning, setting a positive example that the private sector and the public at large can follow. This is a perfect opportunity for the public sector to demonstrate its commitment to making effective use of IT in meeting service targets and to prove that it can be a pioneer in the application of advanced IT for practical results in the real world.

Recovering from loss of paper records

Currently it seems many of the organisations that do accept the importance of establishing a disaster recovery and business continuity procedure have, in any case, failed to incorporate a recovery strategy for their paper-based documents into their plans. Some may have records-management strategies in place for vital paper-based records stored off-site, but related documentation – faxed communications, paper in file cabinets, memos, reports and financial statements – is not backed up or stored securely off-site.

Such material makes up the everyday documentation that feeds data-driven transactions and forms the paper trail that can provide key evidence in any ongoing investigation or transaction adjudication. When this information is lost, complete data records simply cannot exist. This is a particular challenge for the public sector in the light of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force in January 2005.

Preserving the cultural heritage

However, if one takes into account the historical, literary or intellectual value of much of the physical documentation that is presently in the care of the public sector, it becomes clear that legal considerations are not the only factor that comes into play here.

Public bodies have a duty to preserve the UK’s cultural heritage, and this can be achieved even when the physical documentation itself has been destroyed. Historic architecture can be repaired, but technical expertise and literary or artistic works of art – being represented by a collection of thoughts expressed in the written word by an innovator in that field – are at risk of being lost to human memory if they are not stored elsewhere.

To illustrate this point, the fire that gutted the Old Town of Edinburgh in December 2002 destroyed the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, wiping out a large collection of highly valuable books and journals. These included significant research papers on artificial intelligence, which took years to accumulate and could not be replicated on the scale that existed before the fire. While the physical security of such documentation can never be guaranteed, the advent of archiving and document management software means that authorities are now capable of safeguarding its content well into the future. IT has a definite role to play in dramatically reducing the long-term impact of natural or man-made disasters on our cultural and intellectual life.

Emergency management

A secondary but equally relevant issue when dealing with paper-based information relates to emergency management during the course of a disaster. The ability to get quick access to appropriate municipal information, including maps, drawing, inventory data and blueprints, is of utmost importance. This information can help pinpoint the location of underground pipes, tanks, wiring systems, and known stockpiles of hazardous materials in the area. If this information is lost, misplaced, out-of-date or damaged, it becomes a problem that can stop an emergency response team in its tracks. Thus document archiving and management technologies apply to the tackling of a disaster scenario in the first instance, as well as minimising the negative effects of the catastrophe when the initial danger has passed.

In the post-9/11 world being prepared is no longer an option, it is now a requirement. The Gartner analyst French Caldwell insists that ‘business readiness and resilience are your most effective deterrents to terrorism.’ But this applies to all manner of disasters whether they are naturally occurring or man-made. Public sector institutions can implement the relevant technology without breaking their budgets, and in doing so acquire the peace of mind that they are well equipped to deal with the unexpected. Nothing can completely eradicate that possibility of being struck by disaster, but this should be viewed as one step in a long-term strategy that can empower organisations, helping them to reinforce the strength of their service delivery and prove their dedication to the taxpayer in maintaining a high standard of support when it is most desperately needed.

Dr. Johannes C. Scholtes is President/CEO of ZyLAB Technologies