Q&A with Warwick Hunter on public access to records #iam_2016 May 16, 2016

WarwickTo celebrate Information Awareness Month 2016 we are publishing a series of Q&As with colleagues who have an interest in good records and information management. Our final post in this series features a Q&A with Warwick Hunter about public access to records under the State Records Act 1998.

Warwick is a policy officer at State Records. In this role he provides policy advice in relation to the implementation and management of public access to records more than 30 years old under the State Records Act. He also develops, manages and implements initiatives that facilitate and enhance public access to State records.

In this post, Warwick answers questions about public access to records under the State Records Act, how public access can be incorporated into information governance frameworks, and the benefits of public access to records.

1. In New South Wales, the State Records Act 1998 provides for public access to records which are more than 30 years old (the open access period). How do the public access provisions of the State Records Act complement the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act) to facilitate access to records and information?

Both Acts promote and provide rights for public access to government information. They are both based on the principle that public access to government information is essential for representative democratic government.

The two Acts are intended to complement each other and together facilitate access – the GIPA Act primarily to information on what, how and why decisions are being made by government today and the State Records Act to information providing evidence over time of how those decisions affect individuals, communities and the State.

That is to say the GIPA Act primarily applies to records less than 30 years of age. As sensitivity diminishes over time more records will be available for public access under the State Records Act than under the GIPA Act. There is a presumption set out in the access provisions of the State Records Act that most records will be open after 30 years. This presumption prescribes the means of evaluating records for public access under the State Records Act as being distinct from the formal examination of individual documents and application of public interest considerations against disclosure under the GIPA Act.

Under the State Records Act evaluating records for public access is a risk-based approach to assessment done at the level of series, group or class of records. This assessment provides for either making an Open to Public Access Direction for records over 30 years old or Closed to Public Access Direction that protects information for longer, such as the life time of the subject of a record. Early Access Authorisations can also be made for access to non-sensitive records less than 30 years old.

The fact that a record is not open to public access under the State Records Act does not affect any entitlement to access the record under the GIPA Act. Consequently it is open to a person to use the GIPA Act to seek access to a record that is the subject of a Closed to Public Access Direction, as well as to records not in the open access period.

One simple thing agencies can do to ensure consistency between the two Acts is to make Early Access Authorisations under the State Records Act for all records containing information available via mandatory and proactive release under the GIPA Act.

2. May 2016 is Information Awareness Month with a focus on information governance. Good information governance frameworks ensure that organisational records and information are managed appropriately, and increasingly utilise “by-design” approaches to do so. What are your top tips for incorporating public access to government records into by-design approaches to records and information management?

My top tip would be to have authorised Access Directions and Early Access Authorisations covering all records an agency is responsible for under the State Records Act, including legacy records of preceding agencies. This is not a difficult process, with guidance and assistance provided in guidelines issued by the Attorney General and procedures from State Records that provide models agencies can use. Most agencies only need to authorise around four Access Directions and an Early Access Authorisation, including a Direction that opens all records after 30 years that are not otherwise closed or authorised for early access.

Then at the same time as putting in place protections and access protocols for sensitive and security classified information being used for current business purposes, consideration can be made about how long those protections are appropriate and when public access can be provided through the application of the Access Directions made under the State Records Act.

Applying Access Directions and Early Access Authorisations as part of information governance frameworks, especially for digitally created and kept information, means not only appropriate public access now and into the future in support of democratic rights and government transparency but also the ability for records and information to be used to create and inform a greater understanding of our society through research and reuse.

3. Government records and information are valuable assets, which can be reused for research and analytics purposes. Can you describe an example where open access to State archives was of benefit to the community and individuals?

Probably one of the most poignant and important uses of State archives that are open to public access that I have witnessed at State Records NSW is the use of photographs of the former Aborigines Welfare Board in the exhibition In Living Memory.

Drawing on over 1000 photographs, taken between the 1920s and the 1960s to document the work of the Board and to promote its policies, the exhibition created a new purpose and meaning for the photographs within contemporary life. The collection includes images of children from the bush visiting Sydney for summer camps, weddings on reserves, and stations and studio portraits of young Aboriginal women.

Decades after the photos were taken they still produce mixed emotions for Indigenous viewers – from the delight of seeing rare evidence of community and culture to the sad reminder of loss and separation. Developed with the support, permission, collaboration and contribution of the individuals and communities represented in the photos the exhibition told powerful personal stories and had a strong impact on communities across the State in a touring version.

The exhibition not only benefited the community and individuals over the several years of its touring and display, but also provided a meaningful legacy in a database of information collected from the community about the people and places represented in the photos.

The major themes and content of the exhibition are outlined in the September 2006 issue of Vital Signs magazine.

4. Increasingly information about State archives, and the archives themselves, are available online. What do you see as the key benefits of this accessibility for researchers and the community?

Having information about State archives, and the archives themselves, available online provides so many benefits it’s hard to know where to start. Obviously online access provides for greater access to and understanding of State archives by removing the requirement to visit a physical location and inspect hard copies of State archives – a requirement many of our potential researchers, especially those in regional areas, cannot meet.

Additionally online access, including to datasets such the State archives catalogue, indexes, and the archives themselves, provides enormous opportunities for collaborations, connections and the reuse of information that brings a deeper understanding of our history and an ability to better understand and address the present.

An example of the potential collaborations that online access provides is the Discovering Anzacs project lead by the National Archives of Australia that has been developed to enable the online sharing of data with other institutions and organisations which hold valuable information about Australians’ and New Zealanders’ experiences of WW1. The organisations contributing include the State Library of NSW, the State Library of Queensland, the Public Record Office Victoria and Archives New Zealand. In addition this online collaboration provides the ability for individuals to contribute personal records, such as photos and letters, through the participation of organisations like the Berrima and District Historical and Family History Society. This online accessibility allows people to have an immediate overview of information held by a range of institutions and people documenting the same events from different perspectives not previously possible.


Thank you to Warwick for taking the time to answer these questions! Further information about public access to the records of NSW Government is available on our website.

And in case you missed them, check out our previous posts in this series:

Image credit: Catherine Robinson
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