Why Records Management Matters: Trust, Accountability, Impact by Laura Millar

Why Records Management Matters: Trust, Accountability, Impact by Laura Millar

In advance of our planned Annual Lecture and Why Records Management Matters conference this Spring, we invited acclaimed Canadian author and archives and information management specialist, Laura Millar to consider the event’s themes and offer a preview of the issues that she was to have explored in her lecture.

Laura Millar

Trust, Accountability, Impact

What would the world look like without records managers? I can answer that question, because I have seen that world. It is a world where human rights are challenged, accountability is ignored, and trust is broken. It is a world that I, along with recordkeeping professionals everywhere, have fought to change, in my case for over 35 years.

People deserve to be able to access authentic information (read: evidence) about themselves and their society, and they deserve to know that their own personal information is accurate, authentic, and protected from harm. Supporting those two outcomes is at the heart of records management service. But in many of the countries I have visited during my long career as a records and archives consultant, the inability of people to access basic information, about their governments, their society, or themselves, is painfully visible. Too often that failure links back to weaknesses in the protection of evidence: records, archives, and data with evidential value.

I have witnessed cases where a pensioner could not receive his monthly stipend because the government could not find his file and therefore could not prove that he had been a public employee for 40 years. I have seen a school system unable to manage its payroll because it had no control over the registers of teachers. Hundreds of “ghost workers” were paid monthly, because unscrupulous employees had added fictitious names to registers so they could arrive at the payroll desk each month and pick up the check for their non-existent “friend.” I have seen the mismanagement of medical records, which were not stored securely and so ended up being used to wrap chili prawns for sale on the local trains.

These are all real records management failures, not because the records manager did a poor job, but because records management was not considered a priority. Often the failure is unintentional, a consequence of inadequate resources and limited capacity, but sometimes it is intentional, as a way to allow easy opportunities for fraud and abuse. To enact effective social change and to support human rights as much as possible, societies have to take concrete steps, which includes taking action to support effective, efficient, and accountable records management. I see four actions as important, if one is to link recordkeeping to the protection of human rights and the enhancement of trust, accountability, and integrity in society.

  • First, societies need to establish democratic rules – laws, regulations, policies, guidelines – against which people’s actions are measured. Equitable laws, applied judiciously and fairly, are essential.
  • Second, there needs to be a process of enforcement, to ensure that those who do not follow the rules – again, whether they are citizens or public officials – are disciplined. Otherwise, the rules have no meaning.
  • Third, those who apply and enforce those rules need to create and collect evidence consistently and effectively, in order to assess objectively whether the rules are being followed and whether the enforcement is appropriate.
  • Fourth, people need to have the right to access that evidence, so that they can understand whether rules are being applied equitably and whether violators – whether citizens or those in power – are caught and corrected.

Records management is essential to each of these actions. Records and archives management professionals help to determine the types of evidence needed to document the existence, application, and enforcement of rules, and we then we capture that evidence and make it available so that those in positions of power are held accountable.

The personnel records so important to that pensioner probably exist, but there don’t seem to be any recordkeeping processes in place to help a government official find the necessary file. The school system may have mechanisms for issuing payroll cheques, or else there would be no cheques to distribute, but perhaps it has not established recordkeeping rules to ensure that a cheque goes to someone real and that the registers are not altered inappropriately. The health department may have procedures for creating medical records, but it may need additional regulations to ensure old records are not just placed in an alley, where they can be taken away by street hawkers and used to wrap chili prawns.

Records professionals do much more than apply rules, though. We acquire records and archives and publications and web resources. We protect the value of these resources as evidence and as information. And we ensure those resources are available for anyone to use, from police officers, judges, juries, and lawyers to research students, genealogists, historians, or the general public. It is not up to us to judge why people want the information. Our job is to identify and protect the best evidence needed to support accountability, enhance trust, foster identity, protect memories, and help build a democratic, rules-based society, which is crucial to the protection of human rights.

Records professionals are witnesses and guardians. We collect and protect the evidence people need to support their right to be treated as free and equal members of society, with dignity and respect. Our work is critically important. If we do this work with humility, integrity, and respect, we will help society achieve the ultimate goal: the creation of a society that respects reasonable laws, and the rule of law, and that ensures everyone in society is accorded the rights and respect they deserve.

Laura Millar

As our annual lecture could not take place due to COVID-19 restrictions, Laura was interviewed by SCA Director, John Pelan, about her research and the themes of her latest work. Listen below.