Elizabeth Denham - Keynote speech

In her view, recordkeepers ‘have set the standard in Freedomof Information (FOI) access rights and it was natural to move from beingan archivist to being a privacy activist’.

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Summary of Elizabeth Denham's Keynote, 31/08/17 - ARA Conference 2017

Ms Denham began by relating her own background in archives and how she came to get engaged in records and archives. In her view, recordkeepers ‘have set the standard in Freedom of Information (FOI) access rights and it was natural to move from being an archivist to being a privacy activist’. She went on to explain how regulating privacy and FOI was now a global concern, with 50 countries attending an up-coming International Conference on Information Commissioners in Manchester – in the same building as Conference – in a few weeks’ time.

Ms Denham began by setting out the dual role of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO): access to information and protection of privacy. The trick – in an increasingly changing technological environment – remains getting the balance right between the two; in terms of caseload, the ICO managed around 17,500 data protection complaints alone in 2016. Cenytral to getting this ‘balance’ right, in her view, was seeing effective recordkeeping and records management as ‘essential (as a) public service and for accountability’, and not just about the location and retrieval of records, but clear policies and argumentation around ‘effective retention, disposal, etc.’

In terms of the ‘value’ and importance of records, including when they become archived, Ms Denham quoted from Canada’s first national archivist, Arthur Doughty: ‘Of all national assets, archives are the most precious… They replace hands that have vanished and lips that have been sealed’ (ARA apologises if mis-transcribed). That sentiment, she added, remains today even if technology gives us a different context: for example, in the old days, it was about preserving paper records and protecting against fire and flood; now, given the volume of records, selection is increasingly important and, given digital expansion, protect from threats like hacking have become central.

Ms Denham also focused on the importance of accountability and that, if government takes on new Cloud-based technologies to improve work efficiency, it must also develop commensurate systems to deliver its FOI and data protection compliance obligations. In her view, there was a Duty to Document – as had been established in Canada following a number of public records scandals that flowed from troubling issues like the Highway of Tears. This means in practice, a presumptive (rather than an implicit) duty on public officials to record important decisions and explain the discussion and reasoning.

Equally, on accountability, Ms Denham set out how the boundaries were constantly shifting. She could see, for example, following the Grenfell Tower disaster, that fire and safety reporting and certification and product testing may now have to be brought under the auspices of the FOI Act. Also, should Housing Associations also now be covered by FOI?

On data protection, Ms Denham expressed support for ARA’s position on the new EU general Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The key issue is ‘continuity of practice’ and making the transition to GDPR as seamless as possible for the implementers – the recordkeeping profession. She urged members to keep a close eye on the ICO guidance and updates and look out for the first draft of the new (UK) Data Protection Bill in September.

Ms Denham concluded by recognising that the profession itself was having to deal with a huge pace of change and was constantly adapting just to keep up. The key, in her view, was maintaining a ‘transparent and contemporary approach to information management’ across organisations and advocating the role of the records manager and archivist. And, while we can sometimes feel like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up a hill, when we actually look back and see what we have achieved in a relatively short space of time in the digital age, there remains plenty of room for optimism.

Jon Elliott
ARA Head of Public Affairs
August 2017