Transparency failings responsible for low levels of public trust, says archives boss

National Archives of Australia director-general David Fricker​ has warned senior public servants their approach to information management is fostering low levels of trust with the public.

Mr Fricker, a former ASIO deputy director-general charged with transforming government processes, said a renewed focus on digital record keeping could help improve public trust and accountability.

"There seems to be an accepted position that the general public must always resort to freedom of information legislation to obtain the information it needs to hold the government to account," he told an audience at the National Press Club.

"Presumably [that is] because there is a general feeling the public service is either unwilling or perhaps unable to retrieve, collate and provide the information that should [be] in the public domain."

Mr Fricker said he was sympathetic to the view the government had not prioritised transparency given lengthy and often costly battles for public information.

He said the growing demand for information had placed pressure on many public servants with ministers eager to respond to concerns in the media at short notice.


"Day by day we are seeing more and more calls for greater transparency and accountability with expectations for increased scrutiny and faster access to government records as public information," he said.

"A government which is too slow in response or is incapable or showing leadership in the public discourse will lose its connection with people and its capacity to effectively and successfully implement policies and programs."

Mr Fricker's organisation is responsible for ensuring government departments adapt to a digital future, with all business dealings to be stored online by 2020.

According to the agency's timeline, all departments must establish "information guidance committees" by June with governance frameworks due by December.

Mr Fricker said the backlog of government information awaiting digitisation was "pretty scary".

"I don't think we should sugar coat this," he said. "There is stuff lying around in all sorts of undescribed and unmanaged environments and there is stuff out there that we don't know about and we still discover more and more holdings."

To improve transparency, Mr Fricker called for a more professional approach to information management and the hiring of specialists rather than generalists.

"One of my hobby horses is that across the Australian public service we are getting a bit too generalist in a lot of areas where we do need quite sharp and professional expertise and information policy is one of those," he said.

"We recognise the need for certified professionals located in every agency to make sure that the chief executive and the secretary are getting the right advice and the right time and the right management of information holdings."

He also referenced former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Peter Shergold​'s recent review of government failing, which found there was a need to further improve access to information.

In the report, Mr Shergold blamed major policy failing on the public service's inability to provide frank and fearless advice to ministers.

"There is a strong public interest case for citizens being able to know the basis of decisions that affect their access to services," the report said.

"There is considerable value, too, in publishing as much publicly-collected data as possible and making it available to citizens to use and apply as they want through a 'creative commons' licence."


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