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Director-General’s review

Portrait photograph of David Fricker Director-General

The decisions of the Australian Government affect the daily lives of millions of citizens, residents and visitors to our nation. It is critical that those decisions are recorded for effective decision-making in the future; to uphold the integrity of public administration; and to protect the rights and entitlements of individuals.

This need defines the role of the National Archives of Australia (National Archives). We work to ensure that the essential evidence of government activity and decisions is secured and preserved in a form that can be used and re-used in perpetuity. In this age of misinformation and disinformation, the National Archives must work hard to maintain its role as a trusted public institution, because trust in the public record is a foundation for Australia’s democracy and our values.

It is often said that the National Archives keeps our history safe. It is more correct to say that we keep our nation’s memory intact. It is not the role of an archive or an archivist to be faithful to a preconception of history; instead, our job is to keep the evidence upon which history can be contested. It could be argued that archives guarantee that history is never safe, giving everyone their own power to understand their past and develop their own world view.

There is no doubt the year 2019–20 was characterised by extensive disruption – devastating bushfires across the nation, significant hail damage in Canberra’s cultural precinct and, of course, the COVID-19 global pandemic. It was also a year, however, in which the National Archives continued to successfully deliver on its strategic and business priorities, marking a period of significant achievement.

Building trust in the public record

Over the past 10 years, the National Archives has worked closely with agencies across government, to lead reform of information management policy and standards in accordance with the Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agenda. We commenced this journey with the implementation of the Digital Transition Policy in 2011, mandating that government information created in digital form be digitally maintained and accessible as long as required. From 2015, with the launch of the Digital Continuity 2020 (DC2020) Policy and subsequent release of the Information Management Standard in 2017, we have continued to drive the transition to mature digital information governance, work processes and information interoperability. These instruments provide simple and clear principles and implementation pathways to assist the digital transformation of agencies – towards a digital ‘business as usual’.

The results of our annual survey, Check-up PLUS, have shown that the DC2020 Policy has achieved significant progress in transitioning agencies’ information management capability, as 81 per cent of agencies now manage most information digitally, up from 30 per cent in 2010. However, implementation is progressing at varying rates among agencies, one-third of which are not expected to adequately meet the requirements of the policy by December 2020. To address this continuing challenge, in August 2019, the National Archives initiated the DC2020 – Agency Implementation Support Program to assist those agencies identified as having lower information management maturity.

Most recently, the National Archives has taken the next important step with the release of the Building Trust in the Public Record: managing information and data for government and community policy exposure draft to improve how Australian Government agencies create, collect, manage and use information assets as authentic records of government. The release of this policy will be in November 2020, for implementation from 1 January 2021.

Securing, preserving and digitising the national archival collection

The National Archives continued to apply its preservation and digitisation strategies, designed to identify the categories of records in the agency’s collection that are most at risk of being lost in the next 10 years.

Deadline 2025 is an international call to action to save magnetic media on audio and video tape at risk due to obsolescence and degradation. We have made this a key priority and since 2015 have implemented multiple strategies to support this work. This year, we established the Service Panel for Outsourced Digitisation of Audiovisual Materials, available for all agencies to use, to enable vendors and agencies to digitise more records to established archival standards.

The National Archives also commenced a multi-year digitisation project, receiving $10 million over four years from 2019–20 as an election commitment to digitise 850,000 World War II service records, and make them available online. The records document the service of the men and women of the Australian armed services – Army, Navy and Air Force – during the war. They include paper documents, such as attestations, service forms and correspondence related to their service, and often photos and negatives. As the records are digitised, they are being released for public access online through the National Archives’ website.

Securing, preserving and digitising the records is only part of the journey towards ensuring they remain accessible and re-usable into the future. Implementing the necessary changes to the agency’s technology, processes and skills of its workforce is also essential to meet emerging digital information preservation challenges. In the past year, the National Archives’ Digital Archives Taskforce 2017–2019 concluded its work to define the new processes, skills and tools that will equip us for a digital future, providing the requirements that shape our strategies for the ongoing development of our human capital and technical infrastructure.

This included designing and commencing the staged implementation of the new Integrated Archival Management System (IAMS), providing digital preservation capability and access platform. We also delivered a new digital literacy program to equip staff with the contemporary skills and competencies to work with digital tools and resources to deliver services to the Australian Government and the general public. A more powerful and flexible archival control model for the control and management of collection material in any format and born-digital file format standard for Australian Government agencies was published. We also established the Digital Archives Innovation and Research section, which will continue the transformative work of the task force.

Recognising and respecting First Nations heritage

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy and Implementation Plan has been updated in the past year to broaden and strengthen our commitment to engage with and meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In the past year, preservation digitisation commenced on a series of photographic negatives from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, documenting events relating to Indigenous Australians and their work and lives.

As a sign of respect for Indigenous Australian languages in the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019, signage displaying the Ngambri-Ngunnawal word murrulangalang was unveiled on the National Archives’ newly refurbished National Office building in Canberra. The occasion was marked by a Welcome to Country and a traditional smoking ceremony.

The National Archives and the International Council on Archives (ICA) held the inaugural Indigenous Matters Summit on 25 October 2019, attended by First Nations peoples from around the world. See Us, Hear Us, Walk with Us: challenging and decolonising the archive was led by the ICA’s Expert Group on Indigenous Matters and was held at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.

The National Archives is a signatory to the summit’s Tandanya Adelaide Declaration, which calls for the jurisdictional archives of the world to embrace Indigenous methods of creating, sharing and preserving valued knowledge; open the meaning of public archives to Indigenous interpretations; and support fair and healing remembrance of colonial encounters.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy incorporates focus areas relating to the agreement, such as the right of reply, respectful engagement, and the promotion of respectful and ethical relationships in recognising the diversity of social meanings embodied in archival materials and the knowledge models that interpret them. Forward years will include additional commitments to action in alignment with the Tandanya Adelaide Declaration.

The National Archives is continuing its reconciliation journey, finalising an initial five-year ‘Reflect’ Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) and commencing work to implement an ‘Innovate’ RAP. We are also members of the Council of Australasian Archives and Records Authorities First Nations Working Group, which commenced in June 2020. This working group will have significant input and make meaningful and practical contributions to setting and guiding best practice principles for Indigenous-related archives and the promotion of Indigenous history and heritage across Australia and New Zealand.

Engagement – new experiences for the Australian community

The National Archives continued to implement an integrated onsite–offsite–online strategy designed to provide innovative engagement experiences for the Australian community.

With COVID-19 forcing students and families to learn and work from home, the National Archives moved to bring the collection home, launching #ArchivesAtHome with a suite of online exhibitions, events, archival photos, collection favourites and kids’ activities.

In Canberra, following refurbishment of the national building, two new permanent galleries opened; Connections/Mura Gadi and Voices/Dhunai deliver new ways to engage with the national archival collection, including a digital interactive wall and immersive experiences with the nation’s foundation, constitution and Indigenous records. This was accompanied by the opening of a national touring exhibition, Spy: espionage in Australia, which reveals the personal experiences of secret agents and the curious history of espionage and counter-espionage in Australia, from Federation through to the present day. Unfortunately, the impacts of bushfires and COVID-19 significantly restricted public access for most of 2019–20, also delaying the official reopening and recommencement of school programs until next year.

By late June, regional cultural venues reopened, hosting two National Archives touring exhibitions: the A Place to Call Home? photographic exhibition about post World War II migrant experiences and Without Consent, about the moving experiences of heartbreak and resilience shared by people affected by Australia’s past forced adoption practices.

COVID-19 Task Force

In response to the pandemic, the National Archives formed the COVID-19 Implementation Management Team and Task Force to coordinate the organisation’s response to the pandemic. The task force prioritised the health and safety of National Archives staff and visitors while ensuring the delivery of essential services such as access to identity and documentary records for Australian citizens. The task force maintained regular communication to all National Archives staff to keep them informed about the organisation’s response to the pandemic, including information about working arrangements, IT tools, cybersecurity, health and hygiene.

As the pandemic unfolded, it became clear that stress, uncertainty and the rapid change brought about by COVID-19 had the potential to take a significant toll on mental health and wellbeing as the agency moved to support staff with flexible working arrangements and access to mental health and resilience resources.

The Palace letters

On 29 May 2020, the High Court of Australia decided that the correspondence between Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Her Majesty The Queen – popularly known as the ‘Palace letters’ – are ‘Commonwealth records’ for the purposes of the Archives Act 1983. That ruling permitted the public release of the records under the provisions of the Act. The entire collection of correspondence was released without redaction in July 2020.

The Tune Review

The Functional and Efficiency Review of the National Archives of Australia, initiated by the Attorney-General, was finalised by Mr David Tune on 31 January 2020. It considered the enduring role of the National Archives in the protection, preservation and use of official government information, how the agency might best perform that role, and what powers, functions, resources and legislative and governance frameworks the National Archives will need to effectively undertake that role in the digital age.

Stronger governance

Ensuring an effective and contemporary National Archives governance framework is essential for oversight of and accountability for the efficient and ethical management of resources and compliance with the regulatory and legislative requirements of a public service entity.

In the past year, the National Archives initiated and finalised a review of its governance for implementation in the next financial year. The aim is to deliver governance improvements and to simplify the National Archives’ committee, project board and working group structures to clarify roles, terms of reference, decision-making processes and governance responsibility.

Those reforms, along with refinements to strategies and policies, are better positioning the National Archives to respond to, resolve and move beyond emerging issues identified through internal and external review, its Executive Board and the National Archives Advisory Council.

The year ahead

The National Archives is the largest archival institution in Australia. The national archival collection, holding the records of Australia and its people, remains the essential evidence of Australian Government activities and decisions that shape our nation and the lives of our citizens.

While solid progress was made in 2019–20, many challenges remain ahead for the National Archives if we are to achieve our vision of being a world-leading archive. The outcomes of the Tune Review, delivering our transformational strategies, including implementing our new whole-of government information management policy, are critical to the government’s objectives for delivering improved digital services and sustaining the public’s trust in our democracy and its institutions.