A new building, but National Archives hopes not to fill it

By Stephen Easton

February 27, 2015

More than 10 years after former top Commonwealth mandarin Peter Shergold launched the Australasian Digital Recordkeeping Initiative, most of the federal bureaucracy is on track to make the transition, as required, by the end of this year.

National Archives of Australia director-general David Fricker thinks that, realistically, about 80-85% of Commonwealth agencies will meet the Digital Transition target — but he’s still aiming for 100%, and working on a more precise estimation of who’s on track, who isn’t, and what quantity of Commonwealth records different agencies contribute. Until then it won’t be clear what percentage of records will be kept in digital format and managed digitally from 2016.

“Look, it’s fair to say that the transition to digital information management, while managing various other transitions that are going on across government, can be problematic,” Fricker told The Mandarin yesterday, just after announcing the arrangements for a new repository for physical records to be built in 2017, which Fricker hopes will be the last of its kind.

The flash new building is expected to take care of the NAA’s storage needs until at least 2031. But long before then, he says the Commonwealth needs a “21st century solution” for its archives.

“… part of that strategic transformation that you’re undertaking, can we get the information management to be part of that?”

Fricker well understands there’s a lot else keeping public servants busy, besides making the digital transition before its target date, referring to major structural reforms like the merger of Customs with the Department of Immigration.

“I’m taking a pragmatic view, in terms of [asking agencies] if, as part of that process that you’re going through, part of that strategic transformation that you’re undertaking, can we get the information management to be part of that? And if it’s part of the program, well then OK, it may be implemented after the end of 2015, but at least it will be a deliberate, planned, properly governed transition,” he said.

“So rather than do all of those other projects and then frantically bolt on one more separate digital records management project, I’m very happy for agencies to take a more measured view.”

Those that don’t quite meet the policy deadline for keeping all their digitally created records in digital form and managing them that way by the end of this year will benefit from Fricker’s “intensive efforts to remedy the situation” as quickly as possible. And while the Archives policy is it will only accept records born digital in their original digital formats from 2016 onwards, he says it won’t turn its back on its primary responsibility to store and preserve the federal government’s important memories.

An artist's impression of the new National Archives building in Canberra
An artist’s impression of the new National Archives building in Canberra

‘Not another building for paper’

Every state and territory and governments all over the world are dealing with how to make the digital transition smoothly, safely and efficiently. The National Archives alone has 380 kilometres of shelves and there’s enough records currently awaiting transfer to fill more than 250 kilometres more, on 2013 estimates. Even after it’s all neatly tucked away, it’s not particularly easy to access, which is the whole point of it being there, after all.

David Fricker
David Fricker

“I honestly don’t want to build another building for the storage of paper,” said Fricker. “I’m in the access business, I’m not actually in the storage business, so all of my efforts from now on will be around exploiting the digital technology — not because I love technology, even though I do, to be fair — but the benefit of Australians is not going to be served by forcing them to come to a capital city and visit a repository like this if they want to see something which belongs to the nation.

“The benefit to Australians is when they can get to it from their smartphone.”

Cloud technology, networked data storage systems and innovative ways to provide access to archived information are all next on the agenda, along with digitising analogue records, as the next digital records deadline approaches: compliance with the international standard for electronic record keeping by 2020.

Paper, Shergold noted back in 2004, was rapidly becoming “the detritus of electronic communication” in a world where most information is “born digital”. His thoughts on the importance of records management to the public service, as expressed at a 2003 National Archives event, are worth recording once again for posterity’s sake:

“It is a rare day at the office when I don’t need a record. Who suggested this particular policy change? What was the purpose of the legislation when it was introduced? Why did the association of stakeholders believe they had that undertaking? When was it decided to change the date of the next meeting? Such questions, and countless variants, are the staples of public administration.

“To be able to answer such questions quickly, and in an authoritative fashion, is a test of the professionalism of public servants. Whether written briefs, email interchanges or file notes of meetings or telephone discussions, records are essential to each of our jobs. They are also the foundations of accountability for decision-making. The manner in which we create, manage, secure and access records plays a key role in how well we can serve the government of the day and deliver programmes to the public.

“The essential role of today’s public servant is to transform masses of information into structured knowledge. Through iterative processes of consultation, discussion and argument, knowledge is developed into decisions. Given the complex nature of public policy issues, the creative process often twists and turns in unexpected ways until new policies, legislation and administrative procedures emerge. It is vital that those changes of direction, meanders and dead-ends be carefully recorded. Such records are not just of value for understanding the past; they ensure scrutiny in the present and provide the basis for new initiatives in the future.”

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

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