WA secretary defends State Records merger but archivists unconvinced

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday July 18, 2017

New administrative arrangements threaten to “marginalise” the Western Australian State Records Office and weaken the record-keeping practices that underpin good governance and accountability, according to the Australian Society of Archivists.

The ASA is very concerned that the machinery-of-government change, which took effect on July 1, places the SRO in a subordinate position to the State Library of Western Australia that threatens its functional independence and weakens its ability to encourage high standards of record-keeping in government.

The society sounded the alarm on July 3 and followed up the next day with a statement announcing it had protested the new arrangements, which make the SRO a directorate within the State Library of Western Australia. An online petition against the changes had attracted about 200 supporters at the time of writing.

The SRO is the public service agency that supports the State Records Commission, a panel that includes the WA auditor-general, the information commissioner and the parliamentary commissioner for administrative investigations (AKA the ombudsman).

The State Records Act 2000 ensures the commission is very independent and reports to parliament rather than the government of the day, and this legislation remains in place despite the SRO now reporting to State Library chief Margaret Allen.

The State Library organisation and its governing board are not independent of government, and now the SRO is part of that agency, the ASA fears the independence of the State Records Commission will be hobbled.

The ASA argues the new McGowan government has “set aside recommendations of the Royal Commission into WA Inc. and Commission on Government on the operation of an independent archives authority” by quietly making the MoG change.

As the angry archivists point out, the Commission on Government explicitly recommended the State Records Office should be independent as well as the State Records Commission.

The society’s WA branch convenor, Curtin University records and archives management lecturer Pauline Joseph, told The Mandarin she feared the SRO could lose out in future budget processes. “Going forward, potentially one budget will be given to the State Library, and then the State Librarian is likely to decide how much of that budget is dedicated to the services of the records and archives,” she said.

“And this has happened before. The State Records Office reported to the library boss before, and it never worked.”

Pauline Joseph

In WA, the government would be well advised to steer clear of anything that even looks like turning back the clock to before the WA Inc inquiry, which marks WA’s historic turning point away from the bad old days of public sector corruption, as did broadly similar inquiries into deep corruption in New South Wales and Queensland.

The former premier Colin Barnett vaguely invoked the ghosts of WA Inc as recently as May to criticise the new Labor government, which is trying hard to uncover evidence of malfeasance during the Liberal Party’s time in government.

The opposition is playing the same game, and has taken the extraordinary step of soliciting disclosures about public service corruption, waste, mismanagement and politicisation through the strange new  “WA Whistleblowers” website that has drawn criticism for encouraging public servants to go outside official channels like the Corruption and Crime Commission — channels the Liberals will have to support if they win government again in future.

The difference between now and the bad old days is that the State Records Act, which gave responsibility for state records to the commission when enacted in 2001, is still in place and contains strong guarantees of the commission’s independence.

Joseph said the ASA has a meeting on Thursday to discuss the matter with Duncan Ord, the recently appointed secretary of the newly created Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

Last week the ABC reported Ord reassured SRO staff by email that the merger was a new “administrative arrangement with no changes to the legislation of either organisation” and that “the functions required under the State Records Act 2000 will continue to be administered with the current SRO resources”.

Duncan Ord

The government had “no intent to diminish the standard of record keeping” in WA and in fact, the effect would be “actually net positive” for the state, according to Ord.

But nonetheless, the importance of a strong and independent set of record-keeping rules cannot be underestimated. This is a cornerstone of accountability and good governance in any sector. In government in general, it has been commonly reported by senior public servants that ministers often want them to avoid creating records of certain sensitive information or advice.

And in many cases, like in Queensland’s shocking Heiner Affair, the destruction of important documents at the behest of government highlights the need for strong record-keeping authorities that can push back.

“In the absence of good record keeping being enforced in government, then governments don’t keep good records,” said Joseph. “And if governments don’t keep good records then it’s very easy to do the kinds of things that have happened before with shredding of documents, hiding of evidence. There’s no audit trail.”

“There’s no accountability, there’s no transparency on how the government is operating. … That’s what happened with the WA Inc thing.”

Joseph also questions why the administrative change was made without wider consultation. “Why weren’t relevant stakeholders invited to give feedback on this or, you know, have a proper discussion through a consultation process?”

She argues the new arrangements, which are part of the McGowan government’s efforts to dramatically cut back the public service, send the message that the new government does not value the role of records management and archiving.

The archiving expert points out that records management is listed as an example of burdensome internal red tape imposed on agencies, in the recent issues paper published by the government’s CEO Working Group on Public Sector Efficiency to solicit ideas for the extensive cost-cutting drive.

The ASA argues “there is compelling evidence that integration of libraries and archives have comprehensively failed” in Canada and has previously lobbied against a similar proposal in South Australia, which was later abandoned.

Joseph argues governments should be strengthening the hand of archives offices like the SRO, if anything, and certainly not weakening them in any way as public servants make the switch from hardcopy to digital records. If the digital transition is not handled well, she says a kind of “digital amnesia” could afflict WA in the future.

This is a fear shared by plenty of archivists including the National Archives director-general, given the fact that digital records can easily be deleted or lost if they’re not captured as close to the point of creation as possible.

“The question is: how can you ensure authenticity of your records, have a good audit trail, good governance, transparency and accountability in the absence of good record keeping practices? No government could do that.”

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