Neutering an agent of our constitution

Why a robust constitutional framework requires Archives New Zealand's organisational independence

The Minster of State Services, Tony Ryall, has announced a merger between Archives New Zealand, the National Library, and the Department of Internal Affairs. While modest savings are promised, Ryall says the move is not primarily about saving money; rather, it is motivated by a desire to “future-proof” the Archives and the Library for an increasingly digital world

On the surface it makes sense to merge the Archives and the Library; both organizations collect stuff and, at some point, make it available to the public. Both are increasingly collecting digital records and digitising their existing “analogue” (read: paper) holdings. Added to this, Internal Affairs has recently taken over SSC’s Government Technology Service. All three organisations gain economies of scale in IT as a result of the merger. So what’s not to like?

The key objection to the merger, from an archiving point of view, is that Archives New Zealand, and the Chief Archivist, have constitutional functions that are incompatible with their submersion in a larger conglomerate organisation.

Archives New Zealand does have a public access role, but much of its attention is focussed on the state sector and on the unpublished information government agencies create. Archives New Zealand and the Chief Archivist administer the Public Records Act, which states that all government agencies – including Crown entities, SOEs, Universities and schools – must create records that document their activity and that once created, these records must be maintained. Not a single record – paper, digital or otherwise – can be destroyed without the permission of the Chief Archivist. This public record-keeping regime underpins many other constitutional agencies in our democracy, including the Official Information Act, the fourth estate, courts and commissions of enquiry. It enhances the ability of individual citizens to prove their treatment at the hands of the state by providing documentary evidence about that treatment. A sound records management regime is a key foundation of our democracy because it provides the evidence necessary for organisational and democratic accountability.

Combining a small agency within a larger agency that has many other functions, all competing for attention and resourcing, is a recipe for uneven and uncertain treatment. The ability of the Archives to get noticed within Internal Affairs will depend on the ability of the Chief Archivist to lobby, and on the receptiveness of the Secretary for Internal Affairs to that lobbying; it will depend on the pressing nature of the other policy areas of the department and on the problems the department is facing. There is no guarantee that the priorities of the Archives will be the priorities of Internal Affairs. Being in Internal Affairs will be a constraint on the Archives’ and the Chief Archivist’s ability to pursue an archiving agenda; their actions will only be acceptable if they comply with overall Internal Affairs strategy. For example, it would be unconscionable for the Chief Archivist to lobby her Minister for an archiving goal, if that goal in any way undermined what Internal Affairs was planning.

The Chief Archivist’s powers cut across all government agencies. Yet the exercise of these powers depends, to a large extent, on the cooperation of the agencies themselves. The Archivist does not, for the most part, know what is being created, nor what is being illegally destroyed. A comprehensive record-making record-keeping and archiving regime is a cost to these agencies from which they may see little benefit. A Chief Archivist with a low rank in the state sector, even if well-resourced, is less likely to be in a position to promulgate archival values to other Chief Executives. For the archiving regime to work, the Chief Archivist must have status commensurate with the powers ascribed her in the legislation.

The above is not idle speculation; Archives New Zealand, formerly National Archives, was a part of Internal Affairs from 1948 to 2000. It did not fare well; for the most part the Archives languished, under-funded, their role misunderstood and unappreciated, and with a low-profile throughout the public sector. The priorities of the Archives were not the priorities of Internal Affairs. At times the Secretary of Internal Affairs refused to back-up the Chief Archivist in her battles with other agencies over the fate of public records. Mostly, the Chief Archivist was unable to have direct access to her Minister.

The fate of Archives New Zealand and the Chief Archivist should not be left to the whim of Internal Affairs. The only way to guarantee that they are freely able to pursue sound archiving goals is for strong legislation and organisational independence, unshackled by the vagaries of intradepartmental politics.

And what of the grand digital future? Well, if we don’t get the public sector record-keeping regime right, there will be nothing for the public to access, digital or otherwise.