Statement from the Director-General of the National Archives of Australia

David Fricker, Director-General of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) has released a statement about the management of government records during the COVID-19 period.

Decisions being made by government to protect the health of Australians and to secure the country’s social, economic and cultural wellbeing will affect the daily lives of millions of people.

It is essential that these decisions, and the basis for them, are recorded to ensure accountability, during and after the emergency, and for the benefit of future generations. 

In the current circumstances, with the rapid adoption of new ways of working without the usual processes and infrastructure, there is a heightened risk that records may not be properly created or managed effectively to avoid loss, compromised authenticity or long-term accessibility.

All of us in government have a particular responsibility to act with diligence to ensure that this risk is addressed. The ability to preserve and make accessible information now and in future, requires first that it be created, identified and captured.

The DG has listed some steps for agencies to implement:

  •  Remind work areas of established procedures and tools for handling data and information.
  • Initiate contact with affected teams or make yourself available to provide guidance on information management practices.
  • Communicate the importance of capturing records, now, not in the future.
  • Information being kept or worked on outside corporate systems such as GovTeams should be captured in the agency’s records management system.
  • Social media should also be captured. Advice on how to capture and manage these important records is available on our website.
  • Make sure that someone is assigned the responsibility for managing records created on collaborative tools and social media

These steps are really important, but are going to be really hard. We know that centralising control of all of the content that a distributed workplace produces is not feasible. People need to use too many systems, and those systems won’t integrate with the central EDRMS. So we need to convince our workforce to centralise the records themselves – copy them out of their working systems, and into the EDRMS. This hasn’t worked since we first started using digital systems in government in the 90s, and I really don’t think it’s going to work any better now, in a pandemic.

Supporting staff to do good records management is very important. But NAA needs a new approach to making it happen. We started moving away from traditional, centralised records management when we started working digitally. The move accelerated when we started using cloud systems. And it has now had another big and rapid breakaway, as we have all been forced to cut the last strings to the network and work remotely.

The technology now exists to make records management, even on (especially on) cloud systems, completely automated and invisible users. No more copying or moving data out of productivity systems into a central EDRMS. No more work for users to ‘make a record’, if they remember to, and if they have time. We have had our hand forced – right now is the most important time to make proper records, as this is a seismic, global event which will have enormous future implications. But now is the time we are least likely to make them. A very problematic paradox, that can only be solved by shaking off old thinking, and no longer settling for just ‘wishing and hoping’.