New Act urgently needed to fix APS digital recordkeeping

Brandon How

Record keeping professionals say the over-retention of digital records in the Australian Public Service is ‘frightening’ and have called for urgent legal reforms that would bolster the National Archives of Australia ability to enforce recordkeeping standards across the APS.

The Records and Information Management Practitioners Alliance (RIMPA) has sent a letter to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese describing the Archives Act 1983 as “no longer fit for purpose” in the digital age, having been enacted when paper and other physical objects were the standard. The group noted that poor recordkeeping has already been highlighted in “many previous audit reports”.

“No matter how hard the [National Archives of Australia (NAA)] tries, it can no longer continue to do work around the Act to effectively influence/control how government agencies should manage government information. I am assuming good recordkeeping is a government expectation,” RIMPA global board chair Thomas Kaufhold said in the letter.

The letter says there needs to be a new Act aligned with the digital world, and that grants “the necessary authority and standing for the NAA to regulate government recordkeeping for the benefit of the Australian people”. To help develop relevant legislative changes, Mr Kaufhold has urge the government to engage with records and information management professionals through the association.

Mr Kaufhold said “there is too much volume, variety, and velocity of information. The implementation of IT solutions rarely consider incorporating sound information management principles and practices”.

Rather than separating the record keeping role of the NAA and its archival role, the letter calls for a new Act that recognises its dual role “as opposed to saying our position within government needs to be reconsidered”.

“Recordkeeping and archiving are two separate entities with different functions.  The Archives Act 1983 in its present format is not meeting the recordkeeping needs of the Government nor the APS today.”

Mr Kaufhold, who retired from the APS two years ago, said the “parlous state of recordkeeping” in the APS was at a “critical juncture”, with “some shocking statistics, highlighting major black holes” outlined by the Australian National Audit Office’s report on the ‘management of information assets’ published in June.

The letter also raises concerns regarding the over-retention of digital and physical records, which affected the Optus, Medibank, and Australian National University data breaches the letter reads. Mr Kaufhold said the NAA Check Up surveys flag that APS agencies hold the equivalent of 1,786 kilometres worth of physical record “which is about halfway across Australia” and has remained largely unchanged since 2018.

“The retention of digital records paints a more frightening picture. The volume of digital records held by APS agencies has grown on average by 328 per cent a year, from 51 Terabytes in 2013, to over 314,000 Terabytes in 2022,” Mr Kaufhold said in the letter.

“This is a huge exponential increase, and it is hard to imagine what it will be like in 5 years unless some urgent substantial ongoing action is taken to address this issue.”

“The mere collection of terabytes of data should not be seen as the end game”, Mr Kaufhold added as he flagged that the records management function is often subsumed into IT “where the actual management of information is not seen a priority or simply seen as too hard”.

The letter also flags that 50 per cent of APS agencies responded to the survey that “records disposal work has not been done due to the lack of resources and/or skilled staff”. Mr Kaufhold said this “is a lame excuse” since the choice to allocate resources is in the hands of management.

Agencies also reported that 93 per cent of its records have not been assessed if they should be transferred to the NAA for historical and community reasons. Mr Kaufhold said this is a “substantial risk to privacy, cybersecurity, reputation and trust, effectiveness, regulatory compliance, and efficiency”.

“This is not only a breach of the Archives Act 1983, but it means that Australian society is at risk of losing a generation’s worth of archives, which will have a profound impact on our culture and society.”

The NAA archival functions has also atrophied, with a review of the NAA in 2019 flagged that the agency “struggled to fulfil its mandate” to secure, preserve and make public the archival resources of the Commonwealth and called for more than $200 million of additional government spending.

In 2021, previous government only committed $67.7 million to help it preserve the most at risk records, additional staff, and to improve its cybersecurity.

According to its annual report 2021-22 the NAA was able to digitise 70,000 at-risk records, ahead of its yearly target last financial, but missed other targets and warned of an impending “funding shortfall” to implement the changes recommended in the 2019 review.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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