David Fricker urges public servants not to fear FOI

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday August 4, 2021

David Fricker
The National Archives of Australia boss ​​acknowledges that a fear of government documents being made public could be leading to complacency. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

National Archives of Australia boss ​​David Fricker has reminded public servants of their record-keeping obligations, and has acknowledged that a fear of government documents being made public could be leading to complacency.

Speaking to the National Press Club on Wednesday, the director general said the possibility of documents being publicly accessed under Australia’s freedom of information (FOI) laws may dissuade some public servants from keeping proper records of government business, or from conducting business in a format that can be recorded.

“When I talk to a roomful of public servants I really do try and discourage this negative feeling towards FOI because I think that if public servants are working professionally, if they’re working ethically, if they’re doing the job that they’ve been told to do by government and by law, then we should be proud of the work that we’ve done,” he said.

“And public servants in the commonwealth should really accept the idea that we are everyday making history as well, we’re not only just delivering on functions and delivering services. Like right now in the COVID pandemic, across government, we’re not only working flat out to do the COVID response but we’re making history. And this is history that Australia needs to remember. We need to learn from this because there will be another pandemic.”

Public servants are required to keep records of any official business under the Archives Act.

Fricker noted that his agency has implemented a number of policies and provisions, such as the Information Management Standard, to encourage public servants to properly fulfil their record-keeping obligations.

Read more: Preserved properly, your emails and Zoom calls will help public servants in future pandemics, says David Fricker

The director general also touched on FOI in relation to security intelligence records. He noted that while access requests for these kinds of documents has increased, some government information needs to remain confidential.

“I think maybe there’s been a feeling that we’ve tightened up on the release of those records. I don’t think that is the case, I think that it’s just more front of mind for Australians that Australians want to know more … I don’t think there is a trend towards more secrecy. It is just that there’s a lot more going on, or it feels that way,” he said.

“Australia is best served by ensuring everything that can be made public is made public. But Australia’s future will be severely undermined if we are reckless about the way that that information is given out. And as I say again mindful of our diplomatic representatives in the room, Australia’s got many trusted relationships with other states, and we need that. That’s the future of our country as well so we have to respect that.”

Earlier this year, Fricker told a senate committee that the Archives Act needed to be updated with ‘a more 21st-century definition of a commonwealth record’ by including platforms such as WhatsApp, as encrypted messages ​​are a ‘grey area’ when it comes to government records.

On Wednesday Fricker said the National Archives has been working with the Attorney General’s Department on updating the legislation to address that issue by clarifying what constitutes evidence of government activity in the digital age.

“So we do need to modernise legislation because if we’re going to efficiently capture the evidence of government activity, we need to have legislation that properly embraces those non-government platforms,” he said.

He said public servants have an obligation to ensure that they have kept adequate records of all the work that they’ve done, even on non-government platforms.

“You know there is a duty, there’s an obligation in there to maintain a proper level of records of what’s been done … If you are doing business on WhatsApp, or text messages or Facebook or whatever, you also need to keep a record of that,” he said.

“You need to grab that somehow, either screen scrape the thing if you need to, or otherwise have some sort of software that brings it into a government record keeping system.”

Read more: Encrypted messages are ‘grey area’ in record-keeping requirements, David Fricker says


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