Value public information so we can trust it, rely on it and use it

By David Fricker

Tuesday March 1, 2016

No-one can deny that we are in an age of information abundance. More and more we rely on information from a variety of sources and channels. Digital information is seductive, because it’s immediate, available and easy to move around. But digital information can be used for nefarious purposes. Social issues can be at odds with processes of government in this digital age. There is a tension between what is the information, where it comes from and how it’s going to be used.

How do we know if the information has reached us without being changed, whether that’s intentional or not?

How do we know that government digital information will be the authoritative source when the pace of information exchange is so rapid? In short, how do we know what to trust?

“It’s everyone’s responsibly to contribute to a transparent government, and that means changes in our thinking and in our actions.”

These are big questions, because there is a complexity about digital information that we don’t have with paper. Information has never been more complicated, but also never more important. There’s no going back — nor would we want to — but it means that time is ticking, because valuable government information is being lost — as I speak. I want you to share my sense of urgency about digital information, and act on what I’m going to say today.

Consider the challenges and risks that come with the digital age: what does it really mean to have transparency and integrity of government in today’s digital environment?

The digital age and government

Some of us were there at the start of the digital age, or the information age. You probably didn’t recognise it at the time, but if Space Invaders makes you nostalgic for a misspent youth, you’ve lived most of your life in the information age. It started in the 1970s with the introduction of the personal computer and subsequent technologies that provided the ability to transfer information freely and quickly. It’s amazing to reflect that we have been operating in the digital world for over 40 years. There have been phenomenal advances since those early days — but we still have a long way to go to manage digital information with transparency and integrity.

What does the digital age mean for government? Government should be delivering services online, which means thinking about location, timeliness and information accessibility. It’s about getting public-sector data out there, into the public, making it available to fuel the digital economy. And it’s about a process of change across government to make sure that we’re breaking down all of those silos, and the duplication and fragmentation which exist across government agencies in the application of information, communications, and technology.

At the National Archives of Australia, what I’m tasked to do is preserve the essential records of Australia and Australian democracy. I need to make sure we — and by that I mean Australian government agencies — have adequately kept records of the activities and decisions of the Australian government that makes it accountable to the people of Australia, and indeed to the world, for now and in perpetuity.

This means the National Archives has to be thinking always of the future. While we use information already captured, we have to predict and anticipate the future. Our policies of today must reflect the needs, not of today or yesterday, but of what society will demand of us 50 years, 100 years 500 years from now. So it’s a big call to make. What policies should we have in place to make sure there is an adequate record for the future generations of Australia? I’ll revisit this question later.

The digital age is about the digital economy, it’s about rethinking the economy of the nation through the lens of information that enables it. It’s understanding that a nation will be enriched, in terms of culture life, prosperity and rights, if we embrace the digital economy. And that’s a weighty responsibility. But the responsibility is not mine alone. It’s a responsibility of everyone in the government who makes records in their daily work. It’s everyone’s responsibly to contribute to a transparent government. And that means changes in our thinking and in our actions.

Accelerated democracy

It’s interesting to observe the changing pace of public opinion in the digital age. In particular the speed at which any social issue can gather momentum and become a national issue, and in turn, the way it sways public opinion. Today the momentum is vastly accelerated. Social media, of course, is the platform that allows these views — the views of our minorities, whether they’re authentic views, whether they’re evidence-based or not — to be expressed very quickly and propagated rapidly throughout the wider media and the community.

“Put aside the media hype, and focus on managing government digital information in such a way that we can trust it, rely on it, and use it.”

The development of opinions, social commentary and ultimately policy is taking place in the Twitterverse, the blogosphere, the social media world. And the result is that people expect that fast pace to be maintained across all aspects of their political, social and civic discourse.

In 2015, the Lowy Institute surveyed attitudes towards democracy, and they asked Australians of voting age whether democracy was the preferred method of government. One startling result was that only 65% said that democracy is the preferred system of government in Australia. Now, thankfully the poll didn’t suggest alternative models, because we could have ended up with 35% of Australians wanting a totalitarian regime … So happily, they left it there.

But it’s telling that 35% of Australians of voting age are not prepared to say as a matter of course, just as I would, that democracy is the preferred system of government. And when 26% of young voters say “it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”, it means they are becoming disenfranchised with democracy: disconnected with the traditional institutions of democracy.

Democracy in the digital age

What has changed about democracy in the digital age? Once upon a time if you wanted to express your anger about something, you might write a letter to the editor of the paper, to the government department, or to your local member and then expect some sort of an argument or discussion as a response. Now, you can bypass all of that. You might post an inflammatory tweet or blog, your comment gathers momentum, you pick the right hashtag, and off we go. It’s all happening: you’re trending on Twitter.

And then the mainstream news media, the 24/7 news cycle might pick that up. It becomes a news item, it gathers more currency, and it sways government opinion. And because public opinion sways government thinking — and government’s now in the digital space — governments have to be part of this discussion. They have to be a part of this discourse. They have to be on that evening news, they have to have the ten-second news bite ready, or they have to tweet as well and provide responses to this.

While social media is driving some aspects of government policy, we need to put aside the media hype, and focus on managing government digital information in such a way that we can trust it, rely on it, and use it. Part of my role as head of the National Archives is to think about what we’re doing, and what we will do in the future. We need to be a leader, and the standard setter. We need to ensure evidence-based responses can be available in rapid-fire timeframes and that those responses are factual — and authentic — based on the best quality information. So factual information — at our fingertips — is a big issue for government being accountable in the digital age.

Open government

If I turn to transparency now, at the top of the list is the basic recognition that government information is public information. The information of the government belongs to the people who elected that government. It’s a fundamental of democratic values. It also means that there’s got to be more public participation in the development of public policy, which means if you’re going to have evidence-based, informed, policy development; government information has to be available, anywhere, anytime.

“If you’re going to have evidence-based, informed, policy development; government information has to be available, anywhere, anytime.”

It also means dealing with the escalation of Freedom of Information requests — the more we give out, the more people want, obviously. It’s human nature, so it leads to an escalation in FOI requests. Freedom of information means ensuring that information is accessible and available to those who are entitled, or have genuine rights, but is protected from those who don’t.

Linked to increased access to government information is the need for digital information assets to drive the digital economy. And so, information is there not only to inform us about specific issues, or about recorded events in Australian history, but is available for use and reuse in the digital economy to drive the prosperity of the nation.

The three V’s

In the digital world, information has specific dimensions — known originally from Gartner as the three Vs: volume, velocity and variety.

We are creating massive volumes of records at a phenomenal rate. And this will only increase exponentially. In fact the volume is now so large, no-one is willing to say definitively what figure it is. But we now talk in Zettabytes — [a zettabyte is a billion terabytes].

In the digital age, information is created and distributed at such velocity, that network connections and other infrastructure are paramount. High volumes of information are now moved in real-time, anywhere, anytime to multiple locations Speed is of the essence.

Variety means there are complex digital objects being collected as records, so they’re not static two-dimensional documents in the electronic form — it’s more than just a PDF. I’m talking about executables, macros embedded in spreadsheets, databases and complex integrated systems. These are records that have to be performed and recomputed to deliver the information to the person accessing that record.

Also variety — results in many third party or proprietary and non-proprietary formats of records. This is crucially important for us to understand the proper context, preservation and stewardship of those records.

While different models talk about other V’s such as veracity and value, I would like you to think about another V, which is vulnerability.

The good news, I suppose, is that in the digital world, as opposed to the paper world, it’s actually very difficult not to create a record. Whatever you do these days, you are going to create a record. The simple fact of us being here today is creating a record: the e-invitation, the media release, and no doubt you’ll be tweeting about this and I’m sure it’ll be on the TV news tonight …

So, why is there urgency about digital records, and why talk about vulnerability? I’m quite conscious when I need to make a record, and when I need to keep a record, but for convenience sake if I made something (a copy of a record on my iPad for example) to go off to a meeting, I’ll email it to myself and I may, like Hilary Clinton, even Gmail it to myself. More and more government agencies are using Twitter to make official announcements. Agencies are using third party websites for official business. We use voice mail often. And these things often operate on independent platforms. These are often on non-government platforms. They’re not the property of the government. They’re the property of Facebook or Twitter or Google or even the telco.

And within organisations, we create records in our email. We leave records in our inbox. We have records floating around on shared drives, on posts on our intranets and so on. These records are left in unregulated, uncontrolled environments. So they become very vulnerable — they risk being superseded, wrong, lost. In the paper world, you could rely on an agency collecting its records, operating its registry, and when the time came to transfer to the Archives — maybe 15 years later — the box of papers is there, it’s put into a truck and it’s brought to the Archives and deposited. Job done.

But that’s not the case in the digital world. Paper is very patient and will sit there dutifully, agreeably, for a thousand years. Digital will not. Digital won’t wait for five minutes. Once you’ve received an email, what happens in the next five minutes can determine whether it’ll be forever or it’ll just be completely lost. Let alone all the vulnerabilities about records lying around in unregulated areas, which are susceptible to theft, espionage, and cyber-attacks. Vulnerability is about digital being left unattended, irrecoverable and lost. So vulnerability is crucial and it creates the urgency to act, and act now.


This brings me to technical obsolescence and information obsolescence. One thing that we have to deal with here is that most of our colleagues use technology to do things more quickly and to have more fun. It’s about convenience and working in the moment.

Too often the process — getting the work done, finding those savings, finding those productivity gains — is valued much more highly than the information that’s created. The trouble is we don’t see ourselves as knowledge workers. We don’t see our value in the knowledge we’ve created, which is available downstream to other processes. We tend to focus — wrongly I believe — on the workload we’ve completed. We need to think of the bigger picture.

We need to be excited by the power, the potential of the government information we collect and safeguard. We need to ask: How can this government information be used by others, or even by ourselves for another purpose in the future?

The terrible irony is that the technology we use today we will not be using probably even five years from now, let alone ten years from now. But we also know that the information we create today absolutely will be used. It will deliver benefits and dividends for many, many years to come. Everyone knows that. Every time we read a book, every time we look at any sort of history or look at any sort of archival resource, we understand that. But in our day-to-day work, we just don’t work that way.

“We need to value the assets being created, which provide better decision making and ultimately better prosperity and better access to justice for every citizen.”

Think about the new BlackBerry or equivalent you got the other day. I’m sure it’s giving you a headache but actually technical obsolescence is good. It might hurt at first, but actually you like it, because it’s fun. Technical obsolescence is a sign of progress. It’s a sign of advancement. It’s a sign of reinvention. So it’s great.

Information obsolescence, though — if those systems are being replaced and then you’re stuck with this awful data migration project and you end up losing half of the information instead of carrying it across — information obsolescence is regressive. Information obsolescence takes us backwards, because it means we are missing valuable information — information that was lost along the way, or that’s now irrecoverable. Information obsolescence is the sign of an organisation that is not clever.

We need to plan for technical obsolescence, anticipate technological advancements, which are really good. At the same time we need to guard against information obsolescence, which is not good.

So, the thinking needs to change — we need to value the assets being created, which provide better decision making and ultimately better prosperity and better access to justice for every citizen. We need to instil across the public service this long-term view of the true value of information, and this will make the downstream activities efficient and avoid information obsolescence.

Information governance

Good information governance is at the heart of managing digital information to provide access to that information into the future — ready access to government information is vital for transparency. Only when information is digital and managed well can government share it effectively with the Australian community, to the benefit of society and the economy.

There are many examples where poor information management, or poor information governance, has led to failures — both in the private and public sectors. Professor Peter Shergold’s recent report, Learning from Failure, why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past and how the chances of success in the future can be improved, highlights examples such as the Home Insulation Program, the NBN and Building the Education Revolution.

So how do we at the National Archives help agencies to manage these challenges and risks? The annual Check-up Digital survey tool has been assisting agencies to measure their maturity in digital information management practices and improve the ways they manage digital information. Check-up Digital helps both agencies and the Archives by showing the big picture about how the government is travelling on the path to digital information management.

Beyond Digital Transition

As part of the 2011 Digital Transition Policy, the Archives set a target for January 1, 2016 — when all digital records created in agencies would be managed digitally and later transferred to the Archives in digital format only. Of the 180 Commonwealth agencies in scope I’m pleased to report that the majority has met the target, and most of the remainder have strategies in place to meet it. We offered Digital Excellence Awards for the first time in 2015, and some agencies are exemplars for the progress they have made. These include:

  • The National Offshore Petroleum Titles Administrator, for a seamless EDRMS integrated with other agency business systems through mapping various existing information management systems and using automatic metadata generation to improve efficiency.
  • The Federal Court of Australia, for the first Australian fully-digital official record of all court documents, completely replacing paper court files and implemented using off-the-shelf technology without additional funding.
  • The Department of Immigration and Border Protection, for an online self-service facility — ImmiAccount, which allows clients to use a secure online account to digitally manage visa applications.
  • The Department of Human Services, which developed a variety of digital channels to assist with delivery of payments and services, including the myGov digital service which provides users with a single login to access a number of online government services and update their own details.

Agencies that indicated they would not meet the January 1 target vary in size and profile. Why were agencies not able to meet the target and manage their information in the digital age? This prompted us to undertaken further investigation.

One of our early findings is that some agencies failed to meet the target because they had undergone multiple machinery-of-government changes. For the Archives, this understanding revealed that the information these agencies hold is not easily shared, and highlighted the vulnerability of such information in the digital age. The information is either locked away and safe but inaccessible, or is at risk of becoming irrecoverable. So we know that this is an area of focus, together with agencies, as we build information management policy.

However, meeting the January 1 target is only the beginning. Beyond Digital Transition, we are leading agencies towards Digital Continuity, and much work is needed to make the most of our digital information assets.

Digital Continuity 2020 policy

This brings me to the question I posed earlier: what policies should we have in place to make sure there is an adequate record for the future generations of Australia?

The Archives is leading the way with its Digital Continuity 2020 Policy which we launched in October last year. DC 2020 is a whole-of-government approach to digital information governance.

The policy first asks agencies to consider whether they are making good investment decisions to manage their information assets. It is generally recognised that the Australian government spends around $6 billion on ICT per year. DC 2020 recognises the large investment government makes in ICT, and challenges agencies to think about information and data as a return on that investment — and to gain real value from their data and information. In an ever tighter fiscal environment, government is expected to make good investment decisions with best possible outcomes for the government, community and economy.

Successful implementation of this policy means that by 2020 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. They 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 also 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.

Information governance

At the heart of the policy is the recognition that information governance is paramount for transparency and integrity. Information governance is key to digital transparency — a coordinated whole-of-government approach under the policy targets will lead to faster realisation of data and information value, and how data can be accessed.

And information governance is also a key mechanism to address the integrity of digital information. We know integrity relies on the reliability of systems (and infrastructure) that create, capture and control information, including audit trails and authorisations.

The Archives, as a standard setter in digital information management, has developed a minimum metadata set and a Business System Assessment Framework, as part of a suite of tools and guidance that will assist agencies to meet the policy requirements.

The policy also recognises the need for information professionals across agencies and across government. One of the obstacles in the digital age is the lack of an holistic approach to managing information. This is perhaps one of the greater risks to information integrity. DC2020 addresses professionalism targets — the policy recognises the risk to information assets if the expertise of relevant information stakeholders isn’t considered.

The knowledge and skill of all information stakeholders is needed to make good decisions to develop a consistent, systematic and whole-of agency approach to managing information. It is no longer feasible for each business or program area to manage their business information in isolation. Demand is rising for agile digital information professionals.

These agile digital information professionals of the future will be responsible for setting strategy in agencies and driving change. But it’s no good expecting digital information to be their responsibility alone. We are all expected to manage our digital records responsibly in our day to day work.

‘It starts with you’

The Archives is at the forefront of digital information management and committed to setting the standard for transparency and integrity in the digital world. But the National Archives is not the only player in the game. We see ourselves as the enabler of the digital vision, complementing the role of the Digital Transformation Office and others in forging real change.

This is a call to action for all government agencies to take responsibility. The buck stops with us, it’s true, but it starts with you.

This is an edited version of the speech given by David Fricker at the National Press Club in Canberra on February 29

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