‘Big ambitions’ for small agency: Govt’s Archives response

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The federal government has formally responded to a damning review of the National Archives it received more than 18 months ago, promising to help establish a larger role for the agency but putting the brakes on proposed structural reforms.

The government has agreed fully or in principle to all 20 recommendations of a functional and efficiency review of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) conducted in 2019 by former Department of Finance secretary David Tune.

Assistant minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker and Attorney-General Michaelia Cash. Image: Australian Senate/Twitter

The response, to be released Thursday, backs the recommendations, including updating legislation and uplifting digital capabilities, but makes it clear the biggest reforms will take many years and require much more funding.

However, it does not commit any more money to the agency beyond the already announced $67 million for at risk-records, staffing and cyber security, with several large-scale recommendations to remain subject to business cases and future budget processes.

“Mr Tune has big ambitions for what is currently a small agency,” the government response said.

“There will need to be a period of capability building before some of his recommendations can be implemented.”

Mr Tune found the agency had “struggled” to meet its legislated mandate to secure, preserve and make public the archival resources of the Commonwealth, including investing in the digital technologies needed to protect them.

The challenges faced by the archives are “substantial”, putting records at risk and delaying their release to the public, the review found. The Tune Review recommended structural reform rather than incremental improvements to overcome the challenges and better position the Archives for a more digital future.

The government received the review in early 2020 but only released it in March this year following freedom of informationn requests, media inquiries and repeated requests from the Archives to respond to it.

Subsequent reporting about the at-risk records, access delays and cyber struggles revealed in the review led to an emergency $67 million of funding to digitise at-risk records, add more staff and bolster cyber defences.

The formal government response was released on Thursday by assistant minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker

“This response is part of the Government’s commitment to ensuring the records of this nation are preserved and accessible for all Australians,” she said.

The government agreed the National Archives be included in government decision-making bodies determining information management policy and standards, and committed to including the agency in forums across government to influence decisions on information governance.

It also agreed in principle to work with the agency to improve efficiencies in information management, record-keeping and archiving.

But the recommended Government Information Management Model, which would consolidate information management and record-keeping across government, will be put on the backburner, with the government to first attempt to achieve the same results with an inter-government and National Archives committee.

Other recommended large-scale reforms like a centralised record digitisation hub, a “5th Generation Digital Archive”, and long-term cyber capabilities have been agreed to but will be subject to future budget processes and business cases.

The government said it will now focus on legislation and has agreed to update the Archives Act to better reflect contemporary practices and the increased use of digital technologies.

“Most of the technologies and formats that are used for government documents today didn’t even exist at the time that Act was enacted,” Ms Stoker said.

“Similarly, the security landscape in which the NAA operates has transformed, and it now requires the benefit of investments the Morrison Government has made in cyber security and digital hubs to equip it for the future.

“Together with our recent $67.7m commitment to digitising at-risk records, building capability and improving sentencing processes, the Morrison Government is backing the NAA to be a world-class institution for the long term that is easily accessed by Australians.”

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