Happy anniversary, departmental record officer!

Forget petrol station flowers, last minute chocolates and greetings cards with pre-written poetry – anniversaries are very important at The National Archives.

If you’re an avid reader of the blog you’ll no doubt have seen some of our 2014 milestone marking pieces, including: the centenary of the First World War, 70 years since D-day40 years since the Flixborough disaster, and the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

Well today I’m going to focus my blog on one of the lesser known anniversaries of 2014. I invite you all to get calendars at the ready, and celebrate with me an event that changed the face of modern government archiving practices.

No annivserary complete without cake - a one ton birthday cake with electric lights constructed in 1916

No annivserary complete without cake – a one ton birthday cake with electric lights constructed in 1916. Wikimedia Commons: Popular Science Monthly Volume 88, p. 169, 1916, under creative commons

Yes that’s right – this year marks 60 years since the publication of the Report from the Committee on Departmental Records, aka the Grigg Report. I know, can you believe it’s been 60 years already?

The report laid the foundations for the Public Records Act 1958, ending the haphazard legal position with respect to duties of custody and disposal of ‘public records’. Not only that, but it also established a system for reviewing government records that was still used decades after publication.

It would take a whole series of blogs to cover all of the principal recommendations from the report, so today I’ll focus my attention on one of the most important. So please now turn your copy of the report to page 32 you’ll find within paragraph 67:

‘We therefore recommend that each Department should appoint an officer – whom we shall call the ‘Departmental Record Officer’ – to be responsible… for the care of its papers from the time they are created or first received in the department, until they are disposed of… It is important that the Departmental Record Officer should control – or at least know the whereabouts – of all papers in the department.’

Yes 1954 saw the inception of the ‘Departmental Record Officer‘ role – a recommendation noted as the ‘keystone’ of all proposals within this section of the Grigg report. But here we are 60 years on, operating in a world dominated by mobile technology, social media and Game of Thrones. How then has the Departmental Record Officer role changed, and why is it more important than ever?

Well first and foremost the role has had to adapt to the new and constantly evolving formats in which informational content is being created. We’ve certainly come a long way from the IBM 701 ‘Defense Calculator’ computer of the 1950s, and the language of the Grigg report (most notably in relation to ‘papers’), needs to be loosely interpreted in a government driven by a digital by default agenda. A modern day Departmental Record Officer will need to forge strong relationships with IT colleagues and service providers to understand and influence where technology and the formats of information impact on record-keeping.

The scope of information is now vastly increased. Grigg referred to all ‘papers’ in departments, which in a digital environment are likely to be widespread across many systems, including: email, electronic document and record management systems, case management systems, shared drives, social media, intranets, external hard-drives, desk-drawers and beyond… A modern day Departmental Record Officer will be responsible for maintaining a comprehensive picture of what records are held, where they can be found, and what they’re needed for. This includes and is particularly important through the transfer of information assets between IT systems or organisations.

Grigg also talks about the ‘care’ and ‘control’ of information. Caring for digital information over long periods of time will require a different approach to departmental papers – it cannot be left idle for years without active management to ensure it remains complete, available and protected. This protection and control is also important, especially from information risk, assurance and cyber-attack. A modern day Departmental Record Officer will need to ensure that information is kept safe by ensuring that technology, information and business requirements all feed in to information management strategy.

Finally the Departmental Records Officer needs to put policy and process around the disposal of papers – getting rid of information in a routine and documented fashion is important now more than ever for managing the accumulated volume of digital information. Departments have long been following a Grigg-endorsed standard two-stage review process to judge the value of registered paper files. A modern day Departmental Record Officer must ensure that new more efficient ways of handling digital disposal are found that ensure compliance with the Public Records Act and 20 year rule.

The Departmental Record Officer position today remains the primary point of contact for The National Archives on all public record related matters. As well as managing this relationship, a successful DRO will be a champion for information management within their department, fit seamlessly into corporate governance structures and act as a central figure to direct resource, policy and process to manage information in the department.

The Grigg report language may need a little updating, but the fact that there are still Departmental Record Officers in government departments today is testament to the importance of the role.

Happy 60th anniversary!

2 comments

  1. David Matthew says:

    Indeed Happy Birthday!. It would or should have been in 1959 that the DRO was appointed and started work, it was Treasury that laid down 1959 as the start date for First and Second Reviews and it was not until April 1960 that Treasury was ready, after having to reorganise a million files into years on a very small staff. It was in 1954 that the Treasury and Master of the Rolls decided that the Public Record Office needed a new start and David Evans (already in his early 60s) that took over from Hilary Jenkinson. One should not forget that Grigg laid down the public access to records periods.

    Unfortunately the Grigg system has disappeared for paper files with the result that files that would have been weeded out at First Review are preserved at TNA, thus increasing TNA’s costs and it does seem that Grigg has been abandoned to digital records, history will determine the result.

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