Insecure funding and lack of preparedness for digital transformation hindering Australia’s archives agencies, review finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday September 30, 2020


A lack of proper resourcing and ongoing funding is preventing government agencies from complying with their record-keeping obligations, a new review has found.

Commissioned by the Council of Australasian Archives and Records Authorities (CAARA), the review assessed government records and information management in all state, territory and federal governments Australia and New Zealand.

Independent reviewer Dr Vivienne Thom identified cultural issues within some governments and agencies. For example, many of them don’t view archives and records authorities as integrity agencies, despite good record-keeping and information management being “essential to achieve trust in government and to deliver services to the public”.

In order to fulfil their roles and responsibilities, Thom called on governments to ensure archives and record authorities have the independence to ensure credibility, influence and visibility, as well as a position in a central portfolio. Archives bodies should also be active in advocacy and leadership to increase understanding of the value of information management and the risks of non-compliance.

“The authorities need to demonstrate that while there are real costs in creating, managing, storing and preserving records over time, there is a good return on this investment,” Thom recommended.

More funding needed

The volume and storage requirements for digital and non-digital records increase every year, but some archives bodies have “expressed frustration” with the lack of ongoing funding, the report said.

“Funding was often allocated on a one-off project based on a particular business case rather than a commitment for ongoing funding for core functions,” it said.

“CAARA authorities dedicate a substantial proportion of their budgets to fixed property costs which can be difficult to trim. Any decrease in funding below this threshold means that authorities cannot satisfy their statutory obligations. Such regulatory failure would have serious risks to transparency, integrity, accountability and government service delivery to the public.”

Governments must provide proper resourcing and ongoing funding for their records agencies to carry out their statutory functions while upholding accountability and transparency, the report said.

“National, state and territory governments should ensure that government agencies are properly resourced to comply with their record-keeping obligations including the storage and preservation of temporary digital and non-digital records,” it said.

“They should also consider whether it is feasible for individual agencies to have responsibility for the storage and preservation of records or whether a collective arrangement in a jurisdiction would be more efficient.”

Read more: Record-keeping in a crisis: hasty decisions create accountability problems — and are difficult to implement

Concerns raised over legislation and policy

While 40% of CAARA authorities thought that the legislation and policy framework in their jurisdiction has supported effective record and information management outcomes, 30% did not, particularly in respect of preservation and access regimes and managing digital information.

Stakeholders also indicated that the perceived current lack of resources in CAARA authorities and government agencies to comply with the existing legislation and policy was a major risk.

In response to the concerns, the report recommended that core archives and records management functions, including the setting of standards, should be the responsibility of a single agency in any jurisdiction.

“Where the functions are not integrated, the additional complexities for stakeholders require careful management,” it said.

The review also suggested that where there are multiple agencies in a jurisdiction with a role in information standards and management, governments should clarify roles “to reduce conflict and overlap and avoid gaps in responsibilities”.

Read more: National Archives to receive digital preservation system under new deal

Digital transformation risks

The review heard concerns that governments could lose important information if they don’t support their digital transition with appropriate information management standards, practices, policies, legislation and governance arrangements.

Some of the issues raised related to skills development, governance arrangements, lack of consistent standards, the obsolescence of legacy technology, and a lack of preparedness for long-term storage.

A major concern was that “government agencies are ill-prepared to meet their current obligation in respect of information management and compliance is being severely challenged by the digital transformation agenda”, which the report warned could harm business processes, service delivery and accountability in the future.

Thom recommended governments “consider whether there would be economies of scale and more efficient use of scarce skilled human resources to manage the storage and preservation of digital information centrally”.

Meanwhile, archives and records authorities should conduct an ongoing promotional campaign to raise awareness of the need to prevent loss of information through obsolescence, and should “explore partnering with vocational educational institutions and other third-party training options to provide training in digital literacy to staff”.

Barriers to information access harming trust

The declining public trust in governments “should be met with greater transparency, not more secrecy”, the report argued, and effective information access through archives and FOI legislation is key to building public trust. However, barriers such as inadequate prioritisation and resourcing, poor retention and disposal practices, and excessive agency clearance processes has meant that “current performance is sometimes poor”.

Thom recommended that governments work with their archival and records institutions to identify and address barriers to effective information access.

The National Archives of Australia has welcomed the report, stating it would “provide valuable input for each CAARA institution as it refines its internal operations, public services and advice to government”.

“Dr Thom’s assessment of the current state of government records management is very timely, as we now look beyond our Digital Continuity 2020 policy for the decade ahead,” NAA director-general David Fricker said.

“Dr Thom has pointed to the importance of advocacy and leadership to ensure that governments and government agencies understand the value of information management and the risks of non-compliance.

“The National Archives needs to demonstrate that while there are real costs in creating, managing, storing and preserving records over time, there is a good return on this investment. The feedback received through the Thom Review will add value to the National Archives’ Building Trust in the Public Record policy, now in the final stages of consultation and planned to take effect from January 2021.”

Read more: Corruption watchdog issues guide on proper record keeping


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