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E-learning modules help Commonwealth meet digital deadlines

Two new e-learning modules were launched this morning by the National Archives of Australia to help the federal public service switch to digital records management for next year and meet the ambitious 2020 deadline of the Digital Continuity Policy.

About 85% of federal agencies are confident of meeting the deadline for the 2015 digital transition, according to Archives director-general David Fricker, whose team is working with the remainder to get as many as possible over the line by January 1. “I’m quite optimistic on that front,” he said.

The new e-learning modules cover legal requirements for digital record keeping, and making good decisions about what to keep and what to delete. To access them public servants need to send an email to [email protected] with the subject line “launch” to receive a unique log-in.

Speaking after Fricker, auditor-general Ian McPhee said they were designed to help all people working the public service, including contractors, and he had found looking at them “very helpful”.

“It led me to understand better just how much consideration is required in this area and how much awareness raising there is [to be done] and how important education is,” he said. “[The modules] offer a central records management training in a user-friendly and interactive format. Staff can undertake the training at their own pace, at a convenient time, which is great.”

McPhee told the audience at the launch — also broadcast online courtesy of the Shared Services Centre — that there was “much more to effective record keeping than there appears to be at first blush”.

“There’s those tricky questions about what is actually a ‘record’,” he said. Are photographs included? Are spreadsheets included? Are tweets included? And one that always interests me is: can we really destroy that original letter from the prime minister, once we’ve scanned it into our records management system?”

The next step, says McPhee, is for agencies to start making strategic decisions around systems and procedures to meet the next ambitious target, that of the Digital Continuity Policy, which requires every single information and communication system in the Commonwealth to meet the international standard ISO 16175 by 2020.

Fricker explained that “behind that rather boring, bureaucratic number there are very, very sensible pragmatic standards that ensure that information systems, IT systems, have embedded in them the capability, the functionality, to make sure that information is not subject to unauthorised deletion, alteration, theft; that access to information is based on legitimate requirements and accreditation of users; data can be imported and exported out of those systems for reuse and re-purposing later on”.

He added that digital decision-making would mean “we’re not going to break the chain of digital information workflows by producing a record on a sheet of paper solely for the purpose of having a wet ink signature applied to it”.

Interoperability for change of government

The ISO standard also requires interoperability between government data, and standardised metadata to make information easily discoverable and accessible.

“A constant problem that we face, in our day-to-day lives: every time there is a machinery of government change, every time that there’s a restructure or reorganisation across agencies, is interoperability,” said Fricker. “We’re each still creating data within our silos, within our organisations, within our agencies, which are from the moment they are created. They are not compatible with other datasets being created by other arms of the Commonwealth. We’re going to stop doing that, OK? By 2020, we won’t be talking about how we do that any more.”

“Not only will the data itself be interoperable, but we’re going to have metadata which is interoperable. And if you have metadata standardised — rich metadata standards — then we all know that information that we hold across the Commonwealth is reusable, to be repurposed and deliver more and more benefit as time goes by.

“Finally, as a non-technical [issue] and quite pertinent to what we’re talking about here today, is we’re going to professionalise records and information management across the Commonwealth.”

“Information is a vitally important asset for the Commonwealth. Bad information leads to bad decision-making …”

By 2020, each agency is required to have a special office with a professionally certified officer responsible for information management, just as lawyers and accountants are required to hold the appropriate professional qualifications.

“Information is a vitally important asset for the Commonwealth,” said Fricker. “Bad information leads to bad decision-making, and at the extreme ends of Commonwealth decision-making these become life and death issues.”

The Archives is still developing the policy and standards which will guide the service to meeting the 2020 targets in consultation with other public servants.

Fricker says he has “a really open mind” about how the targets are achieved, and senior bureaucrats “should really look broadly at what sort of professional standards we set up and what sort of professional accreditation systems we have”.

“I don’t have the answer yet but I know we’ve got that target and we need to work across the community to achieve that, so be in no doubt, Digital Continuity 2020 is a reality and the targets are there and we need to work together to develop a pathway to achieve those targets.”

McPhee agreed: “There’s a lot to be done in a relatively short period of time and it’s important that we all, as agencies, get focused on this and have a clear strategy because 2020 will come around pretty quickly.”

He praised the Archives for its work promoting good records management in the public service over many years. “But,” he added, “our audit work shows that there’s still a fair bit to be done, and in some agencies, a lot of work to be done.

“So they’ll need to get their skates on to meet this demanding target that’s been set for us all, but it’s a good thing. It will help administration; it will help the outcomes that were all seeking to deliver on.”

More at The Mandarin: Archives boss: billlions going begging if we let data slip away

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.