National Archives ‘struggled to fulfil its mandate’

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday March 15, 2021

old files on a shelf. National Archives
The government has released former Department of Finance secretary David Tune’s review of the commonwealth’s record-keeping agency, (Image: Adobe/ wip-studio)

A major review of the National Archives of Australia has highlighted a range of “substantial” problems, including the deterioration of documents, a growing backlog of access requests, and a lack of resourcing.

The government on Friday released former Department of Finance secretary David Tune’s review of the commonwealth’s record-keeping agency, more than one year after it received the report.

The Tune Review was commissioned in 2019 to ensure the National Archives can continue to perform its role — including preserving and providing access to government records — in the digital age.

The National Archives is facing “substantial” challenges, the review found.

“The National Archives has struggled to fulfil its mandate and to invest in the systems it needs in the digital age to meet this mandate,” it said.

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

The entity needs sufficient resources in order to invest in technologies that will “meet the volume of digital transfer, preservation, storage, declassification, and public access required” under the Archives Act 1983.

“Stronger cyber security measures are also an urgent priority. And the mandate to require better record-keeping needs strengthening,” the report said.

The agency may be breaching the act due to the deterioration of many records, the review has warned, and the issue is of “immediate importance”.

“Limited capacity in the archives means that many records (in a variety of forms) will be lost if action is not taken,” it said.

Measures undertaken by the National Archives over the past five years to save money, including reducing staff numbers, has hindered the agency’s service delivery to both government and the public. The review highlighted financial resources as a major challenge for the entity.

“In general, the Archives has managed its resources effectively and efficiently. It has done this by reducing staff numbers to stay within its budget,” it said.

“However, this approach is no longer sustainable. The growing backlog of access requests, leaves the National Archives at risk of operational and reputational damage and unable to proceed with necessary reforms, including the digital archive, improved cyber security, and the preservation and digitisation of records.”

The paper argued that there must be increased investment to address areas such as IT and cybersecurity upgrades, to digitise and preserve important records, to ensure quicker access for the release of records to the public, and better decision-making and better service delivery.

Tune has proposed a new model that would generate efficiencies to support this increased — and necessary — investment. The integrated, whole-of-government model for information management and record keeping and for the storage, digitisation and preservation of records across government has three tranches:

  • A major investment in a new 5th Generation Digital Archive that will bring the National Archives ICT systems into the digital age, enabling end-to-end handling of records from creation through to access,
  • A Government Information Management Model, with the National Archives having responsibility for information management across commonwealth agencies, to support improved records management, to provide better compliance with the objectives set down in the Archives Act, and to escalate digitisation of the Archives records,
  • A Centralised Storage and Preservation Model that provides whole-of-government efficiencies through more effective ways of managing and assessing records to be retained and stored.

READ MORE: National Archives budget at ‘breaking point’ as agency looks to David Tune for relief

The agency has been failing to respond to requests for records within the mandated time period, the review found.

“Part of this criticism relates to the time taken by the National Archives to obtain advice from other agencies (particularly for security related and other sensitive records) before it can take decisions on whether to declassify records and release them,” it said.

“But other factors are involved, including the requirement for National Archives to make decisions on very large (and sensitive) requests for the release of records — often from a very small number of applicants.”

The review made 20 recommendations to government, including that the National Archives:

  • Be included in government decision-making bodies determining information management policy and standards,
  • Invest more resources in its capability and capacity for advice and training on information management policy for agencies,
  • Assume authority and responsibility for information management, record-keeping and archiving across the government.

The Archives Act must also be updated with a new National Archives Bill that gives the entity clear and flexible charging powers, the review recommended.

“The Act is pre-digital and requires modernisation to meet the rapid and ever-evolving challenges of the digital world, support the transformation of government and government business, and achieve efficiencies both for the National Archives and across all Australian government agencies,” it said.

National Archives director-general David Fricker said the Tune Review offers a comprehensive and strategic assessment of the agency and the issues it faces.

Fricker thanked Tune for providing recommendations to “strengthen our capacity to preserve the integrity of the government record as we move further into the digital age”, as well as the people who made submissions to the review.

The government said it was considering Tune’s recommendations.

The report noted that the National Archives has already begun implementing strategies to strengthen information governance and cyber security; prioritise digital preservation of at-risk records; improve record management processes and service delivery across government; and provide new ways for the community to connect with government information.

A new National Archives policy recently came into effect, which aims to help agencies improve how they create, collect, manage and use information assets.

Last year, the agency signed a three-year deal allowing it to secure federal government records in a digital format for current and future generations.

READ MORE: National Archives launches new commonwealth records management policy


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