Government Accountability in the Digital Age: An independent review of government records and information management in Australia and New Zealand for the Council of Australasian Archives and Records Authorities by Vivienne Thom AM will presumably fall on deaf ears, given ongoing cuts to the National Archives and its state/territory counterparts.
Thom's report states
This independent review was commissioned by the Council of Australasian Archives and Records Authorities (CAARA) to examine the state of government records and information management in Australia and New Zealand. The purpose of the review is to inform national, state and territory governments of the extent to which their agencies are capable of meeting government expectations with regard to information management, particularly as they continue the transition to digital processes and digital service delivery channels.
The findings set out below are largely derived from a survey of CAARA institutions and stakeholders. The recommendations in the report are informed by these findings but are the views of the independent reviewer.
Addressing the culture: providing leadership to agencies
Governments and central agencies do not consistently view archives and records authorities as integrity agencies with a central role in government accountability. There is little consistency in the portfolio position and status of CAARA authorities. Good recordkeeping and information management is essential to achieve trust in government and to deliver services to the public but this message cannot be delivered effectively by a CAARA authority unless it occupies a position of influence.
Independence and a position in a central portfolio are essential for CAARA agencies to ensure the credibility, influence and the visibility required for them to fulfil their roles and responsibilities. While independence is most visible when it is set out in legislation, a reasonable level of independence can be achieved in practice without a statutory basis by governance arrangements that avoid improper or undue influence. Even statutory independence can be compromised by funding that is not sufficient to fulfil statutory functions.
Information management and governance are often not seen as core functions of government agencies. While this attitude prevails, the impact of agency culture towards information management is at least as important as the legislative or policy framework. A consistent increase in advocacy and leadership as well as in outreach and training by CAARA authorities should raise awareness of the importance and value of information management and the risks of non-compliance.
There is room for improvement in the relationship between CAARA authorities and some government agencies. CAARA authorities need to demonstrate to all governments and agencies that while there are real costs in creating, managing, storing and preserving records and information over time, there is a good return on this investment. While the importance of recordkeeping for good governance and accountability is well understood by many, there are still challenges in prioritising records and information management.
National, state and territory governments should ensure that archives and record authorities have the independence and a position in a central portfolio essential to ensure the credibility, influence and visibility required for them to fulfil their roles and responsibilities.
Archives and record authorities should be active in advocacy and leadership to ensure that governments and government agencies understand the value of information management and the risks of non-compliance. The authorities need to demonstrate that while there are real costs in creating, managing, storing and preserving records over time, there is a good return on this investment.
The role and responsibilities of CAARA authorities
CAARA authorities are generally responsible for setting and issuing standards and guidelines for information management. While the authorities also generally have responsibility for providing advice and training to government agencies, limited resourcing means that these functions are often not fulfilled. Government agencies would value more tailored advice and training.
CAARA authorities also have responsibility for the monitoring and evaluation of information management practices, but such evaluation is currently described as ad hoc, reactive, or conducted at the strategic level based on self-assessment. The authorities do not conduct ongoing regular audits of particular government agencies. This function is often performed by audit offices.
Some CAARA authorities also have enforcement powers and can apply penalties for agency failures to comply with requirements, in particular for unauthorised disposal. In practice such powers are rarely, if ever, used. Little evidence was provided to this review to support the suggestion that enhanced penalties and broader enforcement powers would increase compliance with information management legislation, particularly in the absence of routine independent monitoring.
This review does not make any recommendation about enforcement powers but notes that the public reporting of non-compliance can in itself lead to significant improvement in compliance.
CAARA authorities generally have responsibility for the storage and preservation of permanent digital and permanent non-digital archival information but stakeholders comment that many authorities do not have the capacity to provide this storage. This can have serious adverse consequences for preservation and access.
While all agencies continue to strive for efficiencies and have prioritised function to some extent to respond to financial constraints, CAARA authorities have statutory obligations that require funding. CAARA authorities also dedicate a substantial proportion of their budgets to fixed property costs which can difficult to trim. Any decrease in funding below this threshold means that authorities cannot satisfy their statutory obligations. Such regulatory failure would have serious risks to transparency, integrity, accountability and government service delivery to the public.
To ensure sound government decision making, proper accountability and transparency, national, state and territory governments should provide proper resourcing and ongoing funding for archives and records authorities to carry out their statutory functions including assuring the ongoing storage and preservation of permanent digital and non-digital archival records.
Providing secure storage of non-digital or digital temporary information is not generally a CAARA authority responsibility. This means that the creating or controlling agencies are the custodians of temporary material (often including through third party arrangements). Their ability and commitment to do this is inconsistent which can have serious implications for future access.
While large service-delivery agencies should consider this role as core business, it is not clear to this review that it is sensible or feasible for small and medium sized government agencies of all sizes and complexities to continue to individually maintain the provision of secure storage, or whether a collective arrangement would be more efficient.
National, state and territory governments should ensure that government agencies are properly resourced to comply with their recordkeeping obligations including the storage and preservation of temporary digital and non-digital records. They should also consider whether it is feasible for individual agencies to have responsibility for the storage and preservation of records or whether a collective arrangement in a jurisdiction would be more efficient.
The effectiveness of legislation and policy frameworks
A small majority of both CAARA authorities and stakeholders find that that the current framework provides effective arrangements for governing the creation and secure storage of government information; however, a significant proportion do not agree, particularly in respect of preservation and access regimes, and the management of digital information.
While a number of individual improvements were identified that could be made to legislation and policy frameworks, particularly to manage the move to digital records, a more significant challenge and risk identified again by stakeholders is the perceived current lack of resources in both CAARA authorities and government agencies to comply with the existing legislation and policy.
Working with other government authorities with related roles
Stakeholders generally agree that it is better practice to combine core archives and information management functions and responsibilities in a single agency. Where the functions are not integrated, the additional complexities for stakeholders require careful management. There is little conflict in responsibilities between CAARA authorities and other integrity agencies. In practice these other agencies often support the work of CAARA authorities.
Multiple authorities with information management roles are now an important part of the landscape. These authorities include a proliferation of government agencies that have a particular role in digital information standards and management.
National, state and territory governments should ensure that core archives and records management functions, including the setting of standards, are the responsibility of a single agency in any jurisdiction. Where the functions are not integrated, the additional complexities for stakeholders require careful management.
While a number of agencies now have a role in the access of information, only CAARA authorities have the statutory authority and responsibility to set policies governing the creation, storage and preservation of records. If records are not created in the first place, government data will not exist in an accessible and usable form. Even very sophisticated artificial intelligence applications being developed for more efficient and effective service delivery rely on the diligent application of policies and rules that are the responsibility of CAARA authorities. Generally there is a collaborative relationship with CAARA agencies but there needs to be more clarity and certainty in roles to reduce conflict and overlap and avoid gaps in responsibilities. Where a government proposes to establish a new agency or adjust the responsibilities of existing agencies with roles in digital information management and standards, the relevant CAARA authority should be consulted.
Where there are multiple agencies in a jurisdiction with a role in information standards and management, the government in that jurisdiction should ensure that there is clarity and certainty in roles to reduce conflict and overlap and avoid gaps in responsibilities. The relevant archives and records authorities should be consulted about any proposal to vary existing arrangements.
The impact of the digital transformation agenda
Governments are recognising the unprecedented opportunities for the application of digital technology to reengineer administrative processes, products and services, and the channels by which citizens and businesses connect and communicate with agencies and departments. This is the digital transformation agenda.
There is a concern that unless the digital transition is accompanied by an appropriate set of information management standards, practices, policies, legislation and governance arrangements, governments at all levels will not preserve and may potentially lose the important information that constitute memory and evidence of their activities.
Particular concerns were raised about: • skills development and training and the overall governance arrangements • lack of consistent standards and interagency operability • lack of preparedness for long-term storage, preservation and access to a range of information in different formats • current appraisal and disposal methodologies are not suitable for the rapid increase in digital information • a significant risk for access to digital data is the obsolescence of legacy technology.
Not all views are negative, with some agencies welcoming opportunities to provide greater controls over the creation, storage and management, preservation and access to records.
Notwithstanding the opportunities that these greater controls should be able to provide, the weight of views is that government agencies are ill-prepared to meet their current obligation in respect of information management and compliance is being severely challenged by the digital transformation agenda. This could compromise business processes, service delivery and accountability in the future. The storage and preservation of digital information is a key challenge for the future. This review finds that it is perhaps overly optimistic to believe that individual government agencies will be able to securely store and manage their own digital information into the future, even using external storage providers. Governments should consider whether there would be economies of scale and more efficient use of scarce skilled human resources to manage this function centrally, particularly with the current increased threat of cybersecurity breaches Ongoing advocacy is urgently needed to raise awareness of the risks associated with increasing obsolescence of storage technologies and to support the development of a cooperative approach to achieve this.
Digital literacy skills
There is a lack of confidence in digital literacy skills in both archives and records authorities as well as in government agencies. There is also limited access to digital literacy development programs. This review finds that this is an area where CAARA authorities could work together and explore methods of ensuring that this training is available and delivered.
Capacity of agencies to provide timely and proper access to records
Information access is crucial to government accountability and trust. The ongoing trend of decreased trust in authorities, particularly governments, is concerning and should be met with greater transparency, not more secrecy.
Effective information access through archives and FOI legislation is essential but this review has found that current performance is sometimes poor. Identified barriers including inadequate prioritisation and resourcing, poor retention and disposal practices, and excessive agency clearance processes need to be addressed.
National, state and territory governments should consider whether there would be economies of scale and more efficient use of scarce skilled human resources to manage the storage and preservation of digital information centrally.
Archives and records authorities should consider developing and conducting an ongoing promotional campaign to raise awareness of the need to prevent loss of information through obsolescence.
Archives and records authorities should explore partnering with vocational educational institutions and other third-party training options to provide training in digital literacy to staff.
National, state and territory governments should work with the archival and records institution in their jurisdiction to identify and address barriers to effective information access including ensuring appropriate prioritisation and resourcing, proper retention and disposal practices, and streamlined agency clearance processes.