The UK government will manage and capture digital records and there will be a comprehensive, accessible and timely paper and digital record of UK government available to the citizen.
This is a commitment made by the UK government in its National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership (OGP) released last October. It’s owned by The National Archives and sponsored by the International Records Management Trust (IRMT). The National Archives was involved with four out of 21 of the commitments but this one specifically focuses on our records and maintaining the story of UK government.
The OGP, if you’re unaware is an international organisation of now 60 governments and Civil Society organisations, of which the UK was a founding member, committed to improving open government globally. That means improving the transparency and accountability of government and raising the level of citizen participation in government through opportunity, policy and the provision of tools and technology.
Every two years the OGP member states prepare a national action plan to outline their key commitments to improving open government. Each commitment is developed collaboratively by a sponsoring government department and Civil Society Organisation (CSO). CSOs are non-government organisations whose work represents the concerns of the citizen and the impact of government actions on the citizen.
Our journey to OGP began back in December 2012 when someone sent me a copy of an early draft of the plan, pointing out a section devoted to records management and asking what I knew of it. Back then it’s fair to say that many across government were unaware of the OGP and our relationship to it, me included. A couple of emails later to contacts at the Cabinet Office and I was in touch with the Transparency team responsible and the IRMT.
An initial commitment was forged quickly and drafts of the action plan passed between government and Civil Society consultations. Sometime around June after the first round of consultation was completed we began to sharpen the statements’ focus against the core measures of transparency, accountability and citizen participation and making them SMARTer (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed).
And this is when life got interesting. Honing statements and proposals down to a level of precision required by such a public global commitment takes time and a lot of effort. This is when you realise that the nuance of single word or simple phrase can vary dramatically inside and outside of government. Drafts are required to be seen, commented on and further suggestions made or agreed on by separate people in different organisations at the same time; requiring the laws of physics to be first bent and then broken. Without the keen drafting skills of our own CEO’s Office team I don’t know if we’d have made it. For anyone who has not been deeply involved in government policy before, it was an eye-opening learning experience.
Spurred on by an excellent team at the Cabinet Office who somehow made what felt like the impossible happen, government and Civil Society were pulled together into a single plan launched in London at the OGP summit where member states met to discuss progress, actions, initiatives and share best practice and successes with each other.
So why was it so important to have a commitment to ensuring the ongoing capture of government’s records in the action plan? Most clearly from a perspective of transparency and accountability, the records we take from government provide the bigger picture of the thoughts and decisions behind the actions, behind the data. The need to maintain and manage this evidence base is essential in being able to tell the full story. Whether it be the annual releases of Cabinet papers, the work of high profile Public Inquiries, the ever changing government web estate or large scale special collections, The National Archives provides access to a more full, more transparent account of how we got to where we are.
Records, trusted and understood, form the cornerstone of a truly open government and the move to digital records and the delivery of digital services requires us to think carefully about the manner in which government stores and maintains its digital content. It’s always good to remind ourselves that The National Archives offers advice and guidance in the safekeeping of records to ensure they can be appraised and selected for permanent preservation with us.
Without the careful management of the content of these files and their context then we’ll have a much harder job separating the mundane from the essential, the trawl of chatter from the policy decisions. I was reminded at a recent event here that we hold over 800 years of correspondence. In modern parlance that’s 800 years of email traffic with memos and minutes attached. If we’re to maintain this level of insight into the workings of government for the next 800 years, even the next 80, heck, even the next eight, then we need to ensure we’re thinking about our records as much as we are about the services they help to deliver.
But if we go back to the citizen, and at the heart of OGP is the pledge to improve the lives of our citizens, then the documents we hold provide perhaps one of the most personal impacts in a world of open government. Within the records being made available under the WW1 centenary pages are stories of individual people, their actions and the actions of those that drove their various fates both good and bad. Our records form tales of individual stories that help families understand their own backgrounds, where they came from, why things happened to them. History can’t be changed but understanding is a powerful moment for those seeking a little more knowledge about their own stories. And in the end, each one of us exists, not as a spread of statistics or data but as individuals seeking a moment of clarity in a busy world. And if an archive can deliver that, in small pieces, over many hundreds of years, then we truly should be acknowledged to be an essential tool in delivering open government and a cornerstone of all that it stands for.
Image used under Creative Commons from Wikimedia Commons, attibuted to Mr Impossible