Archives boss looks to ‘outcomes over process’ as auditors savage ‘ineffective’ policy leadership

By Stephen Easton

Monday November 4, 2019

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The entire federal public sector is supposed to be on the cusp of a new era in information management, defined by interoperability, following the earlier shift to mostly digital record-keeping, but the auditor-general reports the process has fallen behind schedule.

The Australian National Audit Office reports public sector leaders are unlikely to meet the lofty aims of the Digital Continuity 2020 policy, which was launched in 2015 by National Archives of Australia director-general David Fricker and then-secretary of the Department of Finance Jane Halton.

It seemed to start off well, with early efforts to build awareness and understanding of the policy and online training modules endorsed by the auditor-general of the day, Ian McPhee. But the wheels have fallen off along the way, according to McPhee’s successor, Grant Hehir.

“The Australian Government is unlikely to achieve the objectives of the Digital Continuity policy by the end of 2020, and the National Archives of Australia (the Archives) has been largely ineffective in monitoring, assisting, and encouraging entities to meet the targets of the policy,” Hehir reports.

The audit found the “products, advice, and guidance material” that support the policy were mostly fit for purpose, apart from some issues with timeliness and inconsistent terminology, but the NAA has struggled with most aspects of its leadership role. The report points to deficiencies in the implementation strategy and arrangements for governance, oversight, reporting, monitoring, and evaluation.

“The Archives does not have a stakeholder engagement and communication strategy, and does not effectively target entities requiring additional assistance to implement the targets of the policy. Risks to the implementation of the Digital Continuity 2020 policy are not being effectively identified, managed, or reported.”

The Digital Continuity 2020 policy statement sets three aims for the new age of information management (emphasis in original):

  • Agencies will manage their information as an asset, ensuring that it is created and managed for as long as required, taking into account business and other needs and risks.
  • Agencies will transition to entirely digital work processes, meaning business processes including authorisations and approvals are completed digitally, and that information is created and managed in digital format.
  • Agencies will have interoperable information, systems and processes that meet standards for short and long-term management, improve information quality and enable information to be found, managed, shared and re-used easily and efficiently.

At the time, Halton said being able to collect information once and use it many times would unlock “economic and social benefits with better informed public policy and debate” and lead to better service delivery and program implementation, while promoting accountability and protecting the rights and entitlements of Australians. Midway through implementation, in March 2016, Fricker directly addressed his fellow heads of federal agencies and issued a clarion call to action at the National Press Club. “The buck stops with us, it’s true, but it starts with you,” he said.

Fricker has now agreed to three recommendations from Hehir to address the shortcomings identified by the audit but thinks the conclusion that the Archives has been “largely ineffective in monitoring, assisting and encouraging entities to meet the targets of the policy” was a bit harsh. He contends this was “contradicted by the evidence” elsewhere in the report, like surveys where agencies self-assessed their “digital information management capability” in 2016 and 2018 and claimed significant advancement.

The auditors respond to this response by reiterating their view of these surveys as a “potentially inaccurate” measure of the policy’s success, which could allow the NAA to declare entities had reached the goal of “working digitally by default” when really they had only started the journey. Even on these measures, the government was told in mid-2016 there was “room for improvement” in the policy roll-out.

The Archives also notes that its efforts to lead the important information management reforms have to fit within tight budget constraints.

It took some staff away from leading the Digital Continuity 2020 implementation to get them working on another of the Coalition’s priorities — cutting internal red tape — but pledges to pay close attention to the audit report as it develops a “successor policy” rolling out from 2021.

“In an operating environment that requires Commonwealth entities to continuously deliver efficiency dividends; to do more with less; and to implement congestion-busting innovations within the bureaucracy, it is important to maintain a focus on outcomes over process,” Fricker writes in his letter to Hehir.

“Of course, it is undeniably the case that without proper oversight and management any endeavour is sure to fail, equally however a disproportionate concentration on the internal mechanisms and activities of governance will divert resources away from the front line work that is required to actually achieve the change that is required.

“The National Archives will therefore act upon all of the report’s recommendations, improving our governance frameworks such that our approach to implementation engages with risk, remains agile, embraces innovation and at all times stays outcomes-focussed.”

Read more: Anne Twomey: National Archives ‘completely dysfunctional’ for serious scholarship

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