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Director-General's review

Portrait of David Fricker Director-General National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia is a national institution with a clear purpose and responsibility: to ensure that the essential evidence of government activity is securely and permanently maintained and made publicly available. While this purpose has not changed since the organisation was first established, almost every aspect of the way in which we fulfil that purpose continues to evolve at a rapid rate.

Right now, ‘data’ seems to be at the centre of all government initiatives. The Australian Government has set itself the goal of being among the world’s top three e-governments by 2025, improving the efficiency and integrity of public administration, and improving public services through the uptake of digital delivery channels. More and more, government data is being recognised as a national resource that can fuel Australia’s economic growth. This rapid evolution of the government information landscape is not without risk, however; ongoing and emerging cybersecurity threats necessitate the continual strengthening of protections for security, privacy and confidentiality.

It is no surprise, therefore, to look back at 2018–19 and see a period of significant change for the National Archives, as we pursue our central mission to connect Australians with their identity and history through our stewardship of Australian Government records.

Information governance for the digital age

Over the past decade, the National Archives has taken the lead across government in the publication and promulgation of standards and resources enabling Commonwealth entities to transition to mature digital information management. Our 2011 Digital Transition Policy mandated that high-value government information created in digital form be digitally maintained and accessible for as long as required. Subsequently, in 2015, we launched the Digital Continuity 2020 Policy as a whole-of-government approach to information governance through the principles of data asset management, digital work processes and information interoperability.

Throughout 2018–19, we continued to work with Commonwealth entities and monitor overall progress through the milestones of Digital Continuity 2020. We have now started work on the next phase, looking beyond 2020 towards a more stable, whole-of-government information management policy framework. Key to this framework is the recognition that information management has many aspects, including privacy, security, cyber resilience, data sharing, preservation and access. The National Archives does not have primary responsibility for all of these; oversight of government information management is shared across several Commonwealth entities. Our work in promoting a collaborative approach to a single, common policy framework will contribute to a truly national system of government data management.

This policy work has been complemented by the production of Commonwealth information management standards – most notably, mandatory instructions for: digital standards; the retention of ministers’ and ministerial offices’ records; and the retention of records relating to child sexual abuse incidents and allegations.

Preserving Australia’s memory: an ongoing process

In an archival context, ‘preservation’ means much more than simply keeping information in its original form, frozen in time. Preservation of an archive means keeping the record in a state that is at once authentic and accessible. This means that the process of preservation never stops; it is a continuous activity that has to keep pace with the context in which archival records are described, accessed and used.

During the past year, preservation of analogue collections has primarily focused on those records at risk of deterioration and loss. Consistent with my report on the 2017–18 year, we allocated as many resources as possible to the ongoing digitisation of audiovisual archives held on magnetic tape in obsolete formats. Also at risk are our photographic collections; consequently, resources have been dedicated to their digitisation and preservation.

This year saw the successful move of our collection in Western Australia from outdated premises in Perth’s East Victoria Park to a state-of-the-art facility in the suburb of Belmont. Work on a further 75 shelf kilometres of storage capacity in Canberra has continued on schedule and is expected to be ready for occupation early in 2019–20. On the digital front, we have successfully installed a new enterprise-grade storage system, spread across our Canberra and Sydney sites for business continuity and enhanced resilience. Data migration onto the new platform has begun and will continue in 2019–20.

In September 2018, the National Archives’ preservation facility in Mitchell, Australian Capital Territory, was named the Peter Durack Building. Peter Durack introduced the bill that became the Archives Act 1983 and led to the establishment of the National Archives; the building’s name pays homage to his advocacy for freedom of information and public access to Commonwealth records.

Revealing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories

A bold and innovative exhibition curated by the National Archives, Facing Two Fronts, was installed at the newly opened Sir John Monash Centre near Villers-Bretonneux in France. Drawing on records of military service and the stories of those who served, the exhibition shone a light on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at war and their fight for social justice when they returned to Australia. The temporary exhibition’s tour to the centre was assisted by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and made a significant contribution to the commemoration of the centenary of Anzac.

Providing public access to the archival collection

The 2018–19 year saw initiatives to improve the accessibility of the archival collection and promote the value of this precious national asset. In Western Australia, we moved our public office and research centre to more modern, fit-for-purpose premises in the heart of Perth’s cultural precinct. Located in William Square, Northbridge, the new premises were opened by the Attorney-General in March 2019, and house a research centre, seminar facilities and exhibition spaces. The move has proven successful, appreciated by researchers and casual visitors alike.

In the Australian Capital Territory, we started a refurbishment of the public spaces on the ground floor of our premises at East Block, Parkes. We expect to open to the public in late 2019, revealing new galleries, event spaces, a cafe and shop. For now, we continue to operate our research centre from temporary premises in Old Parliament House; it will return to East Block in late 2019.

As in previous years, there have been many requests for the declassification of sensitive government records, with around 40,000 applications received. The high volume of requests, and the limited resources available for processing them, mean that we continue to experience processing backlogs averaging just under 25,000. Notwithstanding the prolonged time that can be taken to finalise a complex request, our commitment to opening records for public access remains solid, as evidenced by the statistics: 96 per cent of records are open without exception; around 3 per cent are released with some redactions; and less than 1 per cent are withheld.

Reviewing the functions and efficiency of the National Archives – the Tune Review

The advances and accomplishments of 2018–19 notwithstanding, the National Archives faces significant challenges if it is to realise its vision of being a world leading archive in this digital age. We must address a shortfall in our digital capability if we are to ingest and preserve the increasing volume of digital Commonwealth records of archival value. We must act quickly and decisively to identify and preserve those items in the collection that are at most risk of loss through deterioration or obsolescence. We need to maintain the momentum of our leadership in setting standards for Commonwealth records management and ensure our products and services remain relevant and fit for purpose. Our presence in every state and territory, as required by the Archives Act, means we must deal with rising rent and property expenses that now account for almost half our overall budget.

In response to these and other challenges, in April 2019 the Attorney-General initiated an independent Functional and Efficiency Review of the organisation. The review, conducted by Mr David Tune, is now under way and will consider the enduring role of the National Archives in the protection, preservation and use of official government information, how the National Archives might best perform this role, and what powers, functions, resources and legislative and governance frameworks the National Archives needs to effectively undertake this role in the digital age. It is expected that the review will be completed in the first half of 2019–20.

Looking ahead

This year has been successful on many fronts. However, at the conclusion of the reporting period, the National Archives is at a pivotal point as we carefully consider our priorities and strategies for the future. The outcomes of the Tune Review will be of great importance in this regard. They will inform the resetting of our functions and priorities to ensure the integrity of Australia’s Commonwealth public administration and elevate our services to a level that Australians expect of their National Archives.

David Fricker