Five govt agencies engage with Public Records Act

More than 200 public sector agencies must comply with the Act

Only five public-sector organisations have begun the audit process for compliance with the Public Records Act (PRA) – five years after it was passed into law.

Letters have been sent to another 10 agencies earmarked for the first phase of the audit process. There are 200 public-sector organisations subject to compliance with the PRA.

When the Act was passed in 2005, organisations were given a five-year time frame to get their procedures for collecting and organising their records into line with the Act’s provisions before being audited. A repeat audit will then take place for each organisation at five-yearly intervals, and it is expected around 45 organisations will be audited each year by Archives NZ. The process has been quality assured by the Office of the Auditor-General, says an Archives NZ spokeswoman.

A key purpose of the Act, in the words of an introductory clause is “to enable the government to be held accountable by ensuring that full and accurate records of the affairs of central and local government are created and maintained; and providing for the preservation of, and public access to, records of long-term value.”

Those organisations undergoing the audit initially use a self-assessment tool to give themselves a profile identifying strengths and weaknesses. Archives NZ reviews this profile and uses the information as part of the audit for that organisation to identify and highlight areas of risk.

Even though the audit process is starting now, the first agencies to be vetted are termed “audit partners”, says the Archives spokeswoman. “We’re spending a bit more time with those first five,” because the emphasis is very much on “feedback” in both directions; identifying solutions to any problems the agencies might have in achieving compliance, as well as any potential improvements to the detail of the audit process.

Archives NZ declines to name the agencies involved in the first round. Results from these audits are expected to emerge in late September or early October.

Meanwhile, acting chief archivist Greg Goulding has told public-sector organisations greater openness in releasing government data should be backed up with stringent record-keeping standards and processes. This is necessary to improve efficiency and ensure out-of-date or wrong information is not publicly released, Goulding says.

The warning is sounded as part of a report surveying public-sector organisations’ adoption of formal record-keeping standards during 2009.

In the current atmosphere of fiscal restraint and a push towards shared services across public-sector organisations, the transfer of records into new consolidated systems must be handled with care, the report says. “Consolidation of central and local government offices without consideration of records management, can undermine any efficiency that may be gained by aligning functions.”

A survey contained in the report finds there has been “a slight increase” in the number of organisations with formal record-keeping programmes when compared with the results of a 2008 survey, though many are making steps in that direction.

“The biggest change from the results of the 2008 survey was the increase in the number of organisations who reported having procedures for retrieving, handling and reshelving physical records,” says Goulding’s report.

The Public Records Act, as expected, has provided a major stimulus to improving record-handling procedures.

In the 2009 survey, 37 percent of public-sector organisations said they had assessed their compliance with the Act – up from 29 percent the previous year. The proportion who have not begun the process has shrunk from 12 percent to 10 percent. The remainder are “currently developing processes to assess compliance” (52 percent in 2009 as against 59 percent in 2008) with a steady one percent of “don’t know” responses.

There are also improvements in the number of agencies who have carried out risk assessments, established some record-keeping policies and procedures and instituted procedures for disposal of out-of-date records.

The full report can be read at: http://archives.govt.nz/sites/default/files/Archivesweb.pdf.

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