Dragging records into the Digital Age

Records managers are being forced to use more technology, as computers generate millions of new documents every day. The first law to enable government to cater for these e-documents was passed in NSW in May, and Paul Montgomery met with the founding director of the soon-to-be rebadged State Records Authority, who championed the legislation as a template of modernised RM practices.

Dragging records into the Digital Age

Decrepit leather-bound books fill the shelves, mildewed maps pile up on desks and ancient film reels line the walls of the storage rooms at the Archives Authority of New South Wales, located at The Rocks in inner Sydney. With documents dating back to European colonisation in 1788, the vintage of the precious archives makes the basement facility feel like an antique shop. The casual visitor expects to turn a corner and find a wizened scrivener dipping a quill pen in a bottle of ink, ready to commit to parchment the name of the latest Scouser lad banished to the new colony for stealing a farthing.

The principal archivist of the NSW Government, David Roberts, is as far from that sepia-toned image as is possible. He is leading the Archives Authority, and the rest of the public sector records management (RM) industry across Australia, away from such stereotypes and towards a future which embraces new technology and modern practices - including adherence to emerging global standards, distributed management of remote IT sites, and delivery of archival content to the public over the Internet.

"What we do need to do is get people used to the idea that email is being used to transact substantive business for government agencies, and where it's documenting substantive business, and there's a requirement to keep evidence of that business, then these things have to be captured and managed as government records," Mr Roberts said.

"Email is being used to transact substantive business for government agencies."

The Authority is about to issue a set of guidelines on managing electronic records, and will conduct workshops on legal issues for electronic RM. In particular, Mr Roberts said that a main focus for concern would the status of imaged documents under the "relatively new" Federal Evidence Act.

"It's a matter of changing the mindset," said Mr Roberts. "Partly, to get people used to the idea that [some emails] are ephemeral records, and that doesn't mean they have to be kept for any significant length of time. An email message might be quite ephemeral, and only be kept for five minutes or so, but it's still an official record while it's in existence."

Apart from desktop word processing files and email messages, the definition of a State record also encompasses audit logs (see break-out), a type of record which he said would create "traps for young players" in the government sector.

"There are kinds of electronic records that don't have that kind of documentary form. I'm thinking about transactional databases with audit trails built in. You don't necessarily have an electronic document being produced, at all, but it has to function as a record, sometimes quite crucially."

First modern regime

The centrepiece of this wave of change is the NSW State Records Act, passed in May this year as the first legal regime for modern RM in Australia. As the first law to be passed which takes into account many of the current issues facing government archivists and records managers, it is a potential template for legislation in other states, and will affect a similar bill to be formulated soon for the federal arena as well.

The State Records Act 1998 replaces the Archives Act of 1960, an archaic law which has analogues in State and Federal jurisdictions around Australia. The new Act updates official procedures to include provisions for public access, which had operated informally since a governmental directive in 1975, and changes the way which government agencies interact when handling public records.

[Records] would have to be kept on-line in what Mr Roberts calls "virtual archives", so that Web users could tap directly into the vast reservoir.

The most visible change is that the Archives Authority of NSW, created by the 1960 Act, is to be reconstituted as the State Records Authority of NSW, to be known as State Records. The Act is the end result of a struggle which it has waged to rebuild itself into a modern, independent institution.

Mr Roberts will be the first director of State Records when it is incorporated in September, and is conducting an educational campaign to inform government and quasi-government bodies of their responsibilities under the new regime. The first task is in communicating exactly what role he and his organisation will play in the new environment.

He said the legislation is "catching up with reality", and in an effort to do this, the SRA will:

¥ develop government-wide standards for RM, probably to follow closely the AS4390 standard;

¥ develop and help implement codes for best practice;

¥ conduct training to educate public servants on the official and unoffical ramifications of the Act;

¥ produce manuals to support managers in their day-to-day activities.

"Fundamentally, it's about providing a coherent regime for managing government records from cradle to grave, and the problem with the 1960 Act was it was only concerned with the grave end of the process," Mr Roberts said.

The Act says that State Records will assume control of any public records which are not being used by the public office which produced them. The definition of a "public office" in the Act comprises not just government agencies, but local governments, hospitals, universities and State-owned corporations - the last including some of the archives of privatised public utilities, like those in the NSW energy industry.

The SRA will act as a regulator, meaning that it can identify problems within the structure and help the particular agencies fix them, according to Mr Roberts.

"There's not a lot of point in having a piece of legislation like this, and setting up RM standards, if we don't know what's going on. Another part of being the regulator is setting up monitoring and reporting arrangements so that we have a good understanding of the overall state of RM in the NSW government," he said.

Failure to foresee email

The new element in all of this is electronic records. A major deficiency of the 1960 Act was its (understandable) failure to foresee the rise of email, voice mail and other forms of electronic records. Mr Roberts said the Archives Authority had been able to fashion a work-around in the interim, but that a major priority for the new Act had been to make the definition of a State record wide enough to anticipate current and future types of digital formats.

"It [the 1960 Act] was broad enough that we argued that it would have encompassed electronic records in any form, including email, but it wasn't ever challenged. One of the things we wanted to do in this new Act was make that much clearer by having a broader definition that wasn't dependent on any kind of physical format," he said.

One of the major obstacles to the set-up of the State Records Authority will be where to put all of the newly acquired files.

Mr Roberts told a recent meeting of the NSW division of the Records Management Association of Australia that the Archives Act had "proven less and less adequate" at covering the vast quantity of records now produced by all parts of the State public sector. He was not concerned with the quantity of data that would be involved, because mass storage was becoming cheaper and roomier every year.

The section of the Records Act which deals most directly with this, however, will not come into effect until the middle of 1999 because Mr Roberts expects a lot of 30-year-old records to "come out of the woodwork" and put a strain on the storage capacity of the current city-based facility. A new facility will be built in by the end of next year, which will extend to 80 shelf-kilometres.

Distributed model

In answering a question at the RMAA meeting about the assumption of control over unused records by the new authority, Mr Roberts said State Records "would not be a great vacuum cleaner, sucking up all of the records. It may be that a better method is a distributed management model."

This would be a major departure from current practice. The Archives Authority takes budgetary responsibility for seizing records from agencies, and moving them to one of their two storage facilities, at The Rocks or Kingswood. The distributed model would mean that the individual agencies would retain control of those records at their own premises. If those records are deemed suitable to be accessible by the public, then they would have to be kept on-line as what Mr Roberts calls "virtual archives", so that Web users could tap directly into the vast reservoir of State records.

"Agencies are facing those issues already, in that the Government is pushing initiatives like ConnectNSW and ServiceNSW which are all about electronic service delivery and delivering information over the Net, and that means opening up their systems one way or another to their public clients," Mr Roberts said.

Given the rise of electronic storage, this raises the prospect that many public offices may be forced to channel funds into developing major storage centres of their own, in order to conform to the guidelines concerning email, voice mail, telephone messages and log files. Depending on the strictness of the definition of a State record when applied to this digital data, 30 years' worth of archives could translate into a staggering amount of information - and a formidable level of capital investment.

"That distributed management model is one of the responses to the problems of technological change. What it's suggesting is to overcome the problem of technological change affecting electronic records - meaning they're no longer useable or accessible, because the technology isn't there any more - that the organisation that generated the records could maintain them in their technological environment. Where that environment changes, they could migrate those electronic records, along with current data, [to new IT storage systems]. It's a response also to the experience that archive organisations, both in Australia and overseas, had in the '70s and '80s trying to maintain museums of old computer equipment. It just didn't work; it was impossible," Mr Roberts said.

A significant number of public sector archivists have not been exposed to the kind of advanced data capture, storage and electronic document management technologies which would underpin the systems to meet the demand of the new regime.

Despite the Act's new focus on electronic delivery, Mr Roberts said the SRA will not be overtly pushing the benefits of imaging or EDM technologies, leaving it to the agencies to tender out their operations according to their business needs. He said the experience so far is that the agencies have made the deicision to convert from paper to digital format not for pure records management needs, or to reduce costs, but to reduce the process involved in tradtional RM activities, and to improve customer service.

"We won't be going out and saying 'imaging is good, you should get it', or 'imaging is terrible we don't like it'. It's going to happen, and we don't see major problems with it, but there are issues of which agencies need to be aware," he said.

Cultural institution

Mr Roberts told the RMAA meeting that the would also act as a "cultural institution". A recent example of the latter was the release earlier this year of documents relating to the 1960s development of the The Rocks. Under the "30 year rule", a directive from Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975 which conforms to similar rules around the world, all government documents which are 30 years old, and are not covered by other secrecy provisions, are made freely available to the public.

Another example of this policy in action at the federal level was the widely-reported release of documents relating to the disappearance of then-PM Harold Holt, including the contents of his briefcase.

These examples are high points as far as publicity goes, but there have also been low points when the archivists have been prevented from doing their jobs. Mr Roberts admitted that public servants in positions such as his had been defenceless in the past against subversion from within, a situation which came to a head in several recent royal commissions where records had either disappeared or not been made in the first place.

"It's happened in other jurisdictions, where a minister or the government has placed pressure on the state archivist to authorise the disposal of records which shouldn't be destroyed. In our case, they can't do that. The minister can't tell me to destroy a bunch of records that might be embarrassing in 30 years' time, because the formal approval has to go through our board, which is made up of senior public servants, Supreme Court judges, representatives of the private sector, history professors - a range of people who can't be railroaded into something where a public servant could be."

This new board structure was devised specifically by the Archives Authority as a check on such nefarious activities, just one of the many contentious elements which it managed to incorporate into the legislation in a process which took many years. Mr Roberts said that laws in other regions tend to leapfrog each other.

This will no doubt occur if, or when, the recommendations of the recent Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into federal record keeping are implemented in legislation. Mr Roberts was an honorary consultant to the ALRC in its investigation, which took place over several months earlier this year.

"There's a great deal of similarity between what they say they need to do, and what we're trying to do with our legislation, and that's no coincidence," Mr Roberts said.

Private sector lessons

In many ways, the State Records Act is merely applying to government what has been standard practice at a lot of companies for years, but the final word on the Act by David Roberts is about what it can teach the private sector.

"The lesson is probably does have is that the Act, the standards, and the codes of best practice we're issuing under the Act, are very much about outcomes, about improving RM. The Act is, in some ways, deliberately vague about details on how to do things, but it's strong on principles, it's strong on the desired outcomes that government wants. We think that that sort of approach is applicable in the private sector, and it's the approach of (records management standard) AS4390 as well."

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