Sunday, October 07, 2007

Convergence of Information and Records Management

Back in 1996, Eric Wainwright, then Deputy Director-General of the National Library of Australia wrote a paper on Convergence, Information and Records Management : Observations from an Australian Government Information Management Perspective. As he predicted, paper records have been largely replaced with electronic ones of that ten year period. Unfortunately what has not happened is a transfer of the knowledge of records management principles to the people and systems now holding government records. This is parochially relevant when there is a change in the machinery of government, as likely after an election (whoever wins). As a result those records and the people dependent on the are at risk.

...A large proportion of the documents created or captured by staff of the Commonwealth government is now in electronic form. Within the next decade or so, almost all records created in organisations will be created, stored and
communicated electronically. The consequences of this for all of us who work with documents have perhaps not been realised - because of the huge growth in output, this means that in not much more than a generation the majority of documents which have ever been created will be in electronic form, and today's print and manuscript libraries and archives will form minority repositories. This in itself will be a profound change. ...

From: Convergence, Information and Records Management : Observations from an Australian Government Information Management Perspective, Eric Wainwright, Deputy Director-General of the National Library of Australia, 1996 Records Management Association of Australia Conference, Canberra, 10 September 1996.

The Australian Government policy and audit agencies have made considerable efforts to improve records management. The Australian Public Service Commission's good practice guide contains a section on records management:

At times of administrative change in the machinery of government, the general principle should be that records follow functions. Once re-allocation of functions has been determined the agencies involved should:

  • determine how the records of predecessor agencies should be re-allocated
    to new or restructured agencies according to the new distribution of functions
  • seek guidance from the National Archives in cases where the physical, intellectual or electronic structures of the records may complicate the re-allocation. Often, several functions are documented in one series of records.
    However where these functions have to be split between agencies, the National Archives can advise on best practice for dealing with the need to split records from the series between agencies
  • provide the National Archives with details of how functions have been re-allocated so:
    • administrative histories can be updated
    • ‘controlling agency’ responsibility for records already in Archives’ custody can be re- attributed to the gaining agency, where appropriate
    • disposal authorisation classes can be re-attributed to agencies succeeding o the relevant functions and activities covered by the classes. ..

From: Implementing Machinery of Government Changes: A good practice guide , Australian Public Service Commission, 31 January 2007

Unfortunately, and ironically, the links from the APSC to the National Archives guidelines no longer work, as NAA have revamped their web site. The material is now under the heading Check-up: A Tool for Assessing your Agency’s Information and Records Management.

The Australian Public Service Management Advisory Committee (MAC) provided recent advice:

Note for file: A report on recordkeeping in the Australian Public Service

Executive summary
Chapter 1: What is a 'record’?
Chapter 2: Focusing on the rIght records
Chapter 3: The case for recordkeeping
Chapter 4: Supporting good recordkeeping
Chapter 5: How recordkeeping interacts with information collection, use and disclosure obligations
Chapter 6: Assessing the current and future recordkeeping environment
Appendix 1: Key products and initiativesEY PRODUCTS AND INITIATIVES
Appendix 2: Contributions to MAC report 8
Supplementary material: Case studies of effective recordkeeping systems in small, medium and large agencies

From: Note for file: A report on recordkeeping in the Australian Public Service, Management Advisory Committee (MAC), Australian Public ServiceGo , 31 August 2007

However, this advice does not seem to be having much of an effect. This may be because there are few incentives for diverting resources to record keeping away from other more pressing needs. Also there is a disincentive for record keeping. In several high profile cases, the records needed to identify who was to blame for questionable government decisions were lacking. As a result there were no penalised imposed. Public servants may receive criticism where the records are lacking, but they may well prefer this to being convicted of a crime where the records are found to convict them.

Some better incentives for compliance are needed. One would be to point out that following records management practice allows you to legally delete records, under what is called "normal administrative practice". In several recent inquiries much embarrasing material was found in forgotten email records.

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