Government Citizen Engagement in the Digital Age

Senate's 2017 Occasional Lecture Series

David Fricker
Director-General, National Archives of Australia

Parliament House, Canberra

28 April 2017

Managing our National Information Assets for Better Public Programs

The information society

Information – the new resource

May I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people upon whose lands the city of Canberra is built, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today, in Australia's Parliament House, on the topic of Government Citizen Engagement. In particular, I'd like to focus on the role of government information management as a means to improve that relationship between the Commonwealth Government and all Australians and in this fast paced, digital age, how we can build the public's trust and confidence in the departments and Agencies that implement the policies of the government.

Because it's information that is the 'new resource' of the digital age, and as we accumulate more and more data we are creating information assets with enormous potential. This offers tremendous opportunities for government to deploy more advanced and effective services, in a much more agile and responsive way – and of course it also presents significant risks, for example around privacy and security.

But we will not realise the benefits of the digital age nor can we mitigate the risks unless we take information management seriously – by valuing information as a national resource, valuing our government data holdings as a national asset and adjusting our behaviours and policies accordingly.

This is the principal role of the National Archives, to ensure that the information collected and created by the Commonwealth Government upholds integrity and accountability of government processes and drives innovation and improvement across all the processes of government. Today I'd like to outline the changes that we are making to fulfil this role in the digital age.

We are accustomed to having national conversations concerning the management of essential resources – two notable examples are energy and water.

We have these conversations because the security and prosperity of the nation depends on the availability of these resources; in particular availability that is predictable, reliable and consistent in quality. Both energy and water are key to every aspect of our lives – basic necessities for health, education, industry and culture. Because of this, we understand that our national prosperity will depend on our ability to manage these resources, finding the right market mechanisms to connect suppliers and consumers, and to find the right regulatory framework to encourage innovation while ensuring interconnectivity and interoperability across the national supply network.

There's another major resource that needs a similar treatment: Australia's information resources.

We are living in the information society. Just as we need water and energy, information has become a basic essential for every aspect of our lives from basic individual human rights through to our economic prosperity and even our national security.

For example, access to justice, recognition of rights and entitlements, enfranchisement in our democracy, accountability of our public institutions and elimination of corruption are underpinned by government information that is complete, accurate, authentic and publicly accessible.

Our economy is increasingly a digital economy. The 'unicorn' and the 'disruptors' that are most often used to define 21st century corporate success come from the tech sector, and have found rich revenue streams through the provision of cheap, ubiquitous on-line services, connecting consumers and consumables through clever information management.

And information management is key to our national security. Along with land, sea, air and space, cyber is now well established as the fifth domain of warfare – and indeed those hostile activities short of all out war such as espionage. At the national level, and within the multi-lateral mechanisms of the international system, proper stewardship of information has never been more important to preserve national security and maintain trusted relationships with our partners and allies.

Our management of information is also important as a foundation for identity; be it individual identity or our national identity. Mass movement of people, through war, natural disaster or migration is not new; it has been a constant feature of human history. What is new is the globalisation of data, and the fact that geographical dislocation no longer necessarily means cultural dislocation. It is easy for people to live a large proportion of their lives in a cyber bubble, selecting the news, opinions and entertainment that fit their own social values, aligned with their own 'tribe'. Culture was once associated with a locality or a place, and as it moved with people around the world it blended and adapted, perhaps best exemplified in Australia's own experience of multiculturalism. But in today's information society culture, retained as a society's collective memory, is not so strongly tied to a single place. It can be carried by an individual with all the convenience of a mobile phone, and a person's 'tribe' may in fact be completely unknown to the city or country in which that person lives. This challenges traditional ideas of what constitutes a person's identity, a nation's identity and social cohesion.

But just as the challenges of the information society are unprecedented, so too is our capability to meet those challenges. In fact the tools and technology at our disposal are beyond the imagination of even recent times.

There's never been a better time for a national approach

Let's look at the current conditions that work in our favour.

Information itself has never been more abundant. Thanks to the advent of digital technology and of course the internet information on every topic is immediately and freely available. We are currently experiencing a phenomenal expansion of the volume of digital information, and this shows no sign of slowing down. The majority of it is in the English language, which of course favours English speaking nations like Australia.

It's important to note that the rate at which information volume is expanding is outstripped by the rate at which the world's computational power is increasing. The costs of information storage and access continue to diminish, and in many cases costs are being taken on by industry; providing on-line information services to government and citizens at no cost, deriving revenue through other means such as advertising.

Citizens are now more tech savvy and better equipped than ever, with a high penetration of Internet into Australian households. According to the ABS, in 2015 86% of Australian households had internet access, and 97% of households with kids under 15 years were connected. Not only are the majority households connected to the internet, but as technology improves people have increasingly more powerful computers and personal devices at their disposal.

This all sounds very promising – an abundance of information, freely flowing across the nation on ever faster networks, by cheap or free services, in more engaging and even entertaining formats. This sounds like a free market at work, on a very positive trajectory. So where is the urgency for government to act?

Let me use a water analogy again. The internet and the communications technology that supports it are like plumbing is to water. The networks, storage arrays and processors are the pipes, reservoirs, faucets, filters and fittings that carry information like water to where it is needed.

But we know that even with state of the art plumbing, we will live or die based on the quality of the water we're using – be it for irrigation, washing or drinking. And in these times we are also reminded that it's when we're surrounded by flood waters that we must exercise the most caution about the water we use.

And so it is for information. Even though it's abundant and free, it is not necessarily fit for every purpose. To make the most of it we need to be able to rely on its authenticity, completeness, accuracy, currency, availability and usability.

And as I've said, in order to build trust in public institutions and ensure that Australians are receiving the very best public services, government needs to act to guarantee reliable availability of government information.

There are also some notable international developments that add weight to this call to action.

The international information policy landscape

United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals

On September 25th 2015, the United Nations gave the world its Sustainable Development Goals - comprising a set of 17 goals to 'end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda'. Each of the 17 goals has a set of targets to be achieved by 2030. They build on the success and momentum of the Millennium Development Goals, but while the MDGs were intended only for developing countries, the SDGs are universal and apply to all countries, as a call to action to achieve economic growth, social inclusion and protection for the natural environment.

Not surprisingly, government's responsibility to manage information features strongly. Citizen's access to reliable information is a core component of the SDGs, in particular to Goal 16 which embraces targets to 'Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels'

Goal 16 targets are underpinned by the adoption of laws, policies and systems that ensure the preservation and long term accessibility of Government information – specifically information that is the essential evidence of government activity. Targets are set to:

  • Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms
  • Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels
  • Provide legal identity for all, including birth registration
  • Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

The Open Government Partnership

As a further commitment to an open and inclusive society, the Australian Government has joined the Open Government Partnership.

The Open Government Partnership is an international initiative established in 2011 that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. Australia is now one of 70 countries participating in the initiative and in December 2016 the Australian Government released Australia's first Open Government National Action Plan. The plan was the result of a major coordinated effort by government and civil society, including community groups, business sector and academia. The National Action Plan commits Australia to an agenda for the next two years to strengthen the transparency and accountability of government and to build citizens' trust in Australia's governance and its institutions.

And here again, the agenda grabs the opportunities of the digital age and the possibilities of records and information management to accomplish its goals. Some of the highlights of the National Action Plan are:

Open data and digital transformation:

  • Work with the research, not-for-profit and private sectors to identify and release high-value datasets, which will drive social and economic outcomes
  • Engage with the public and improve privacy risk management capability across government to build public trust around data sharing and release.

Access to government information:

  • Ensure information access laws, policies and practices are modern and appropriate for the digital information age, including a simpler and more coherent framework for managing and accessing government information (including the Freedom of Information Act 1982, the Archives Act 1983 and, where relevant, the Privacy Act 1988)
  • Working with states and territories to collect and publish uniform data
  • Improve the discoverability and accessibility of government data.

Integrity in the public sector:

  • Strengthen Australia's ability to prevent, detect and respond to corruption in the public sector
  • Ensure transparency in government procurement, including a public review of the Australian Government's compliance with the Open Contracting Data Standard.


  • The Universal Declaration on Archives was adopted by the 36th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO on 10th November 2011. The declaration was developed by a special working group of the International Council on Archives
  • It provides all UNESCO Member States with a powerful, succinct statement of the relevance of archives our modern Information Society
  • It emphasises the key role of archives in ensuring administrative transparency and democratic accountability; and describes the role of archives in supporting democracy and human rights, and preserving collective social memory
  • In 2015 UNESCO adopted the 'Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage Including in Digital Form'
  • The recommendation specifically addresses the importance of archives to human rights and responds to the increased urgency for government action to protect human rights in the digital age
  • UNESCO uses the recommendation to remind all member states of the fundamental importance of documentary heritage, not as an historic curiosity but as a foundation for good governance.

So, what are we doing at the Archives?

Under the Archives Act, the National Archives of Australia is the lead agency for setting information management obligations and standards for Commonwealth Government entities.

Our mission is clear: ensure that the essential records of government are being kept and ensure that they remain accessible and reusable into the future. And of course, to deliver this mission with strategies that are suited to the digital age.

And so, in October 2015 we launched our centrepiece policy – Digital Continuity 2020.

This unified approach to the creation and management of government data will introduce efficiencies across all of the operations of government, but the most important dividend will be the relationship between citizen and government.

The long term availability and accessibility of government records will connect every Australian with our nation’s history and a share in our national identity. It empowers every individual to hold our democratically elected government to account and ensures that actions of public officials are open to the scrutiny of the public they serve.

The emphasis is on 'continuity'. It is one thing to introduce a digital technology into a government/citizen transaction; across government we are constantly doing this, spending around $6bn dollars each year on ICT. However each piece of digital technology is temporary, and will be obsolete within 5–10 years. The long-term value of the investment is not the technology. For the public it is in the service outcomes, and the extent to which government policy objectives have been achieved. But the longer term dividends will come from the data captured or created by the technology, and the extent to which it can be used and re-used into the future for any number of purposes that create public value. In today's most successful business models 'data is king' and it will be our capacity to access and use data that will enable the significant transformations of the future.

Our Digital Continuity Policy advances strong governance frameworks to ensure that information is properly valued and managed accordingly. Our aim is to recognise information governance as an essential part of corporate governance. In the same way that government entities manage finances, human capital and other assets, the information created and held by government entities will come under proper management.

Information assets will not be left neglected or lost in uncontrolled environments, but instead each dataset will be managed with respect to its sensitivity, security, ownership and long term re-use. Importantly, this will see the value of government information appreciate over time, carried complete and intact from one generation of technology to the next.

Accountability of government is underpinned by a records regime that upholds the rules of evidence. A chain of evidence is easily broken if entities fragment their records across various paper based and digital systems. As part of digital continuity, government entities will transition to entirely digital work processes, meaning complete records will be kept of business processes including authorisations and approvals. End to end digital processes, operating in an information governance framework, will also ensure that records are enriched by metadata and assured by comprehensive and secure audit trails.

Agencies will also have interoperable information, ready to move between successive generations of software and hardware, and seamlessly shifting through machinery of government changes. No more information obsolescence!

Data and metadata standards will enable stronger intellectual management of records, including fast tracking information into the public domain to uphold transparency and fuel the digital economy.

The policy also recognises the need for certified information professionals across agencies and across government. This network of professionals will work to maintain adequate standards of information stewardship across the Commonwealth.

To get us started on this journey to 2020, the Archives has developed a minimum metadata set, a Business System Assessment Framework and a range of training products, as part of a suite of tools and guidance that will assist agencies to meet the policy requirements.

Launch of the Information Management Standard

And I am very pleased to be able to use this occasion today to launch the latest addition to our suite of products and resources to continue this journey:

The 'Information Management Standard – Australian Government'.

The Information Management Standard is simple, principles-based and practical. It identifies eight principles, each with a small set of recommended actions that together sets a firm foundation for all government entities to plan, conduct and monitor their information management practices.

Its simple and practical approach is in keeping with the current direction of reducing red tape. It does not impose a new workload or new responsibilities. Instead it brings clarity and simplicity to what otherwise might be a complex challenge for an agency dealing with its own digital transformation.

As of today, the Standard is available for download or reference at our website


A lot has been said lately about the changing nature of democracy and the public's dissatisfaction with the traditional institutions of government. All of us in the public sector have to work hard to win back the trust and confidence of the people that we serve; and this means delivering policies and programs that are responsive, inclusive and open. It requires us to be agile, to move quickly from one idea to the next in step with the norms and expectations of our information society.

And the foundation upon which we can achieve this is digital continuity – a framework that ensures government data that is authentic, accurate, complete and available for use but protected from abuse. Most importantly we need reliable government records that are reusable now and in the future. Our Digital Continuity policy, and the Information Management Standard that I've launched today, are designed to produce government data sets that are national assets, adding value to the government-citizen relationship, creating value for Australia's national digital economy and enriching our information society.

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