Government agencies wrestle with records systems

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Government agencies wrestle with records systems
Most agencies still use paper records

Staff dissatisfaction, duplication plague digitisation.

Duplicate records, staff dissatisfaction and procurement woes have halted attempts by Federal Government departments to overcome an increasing sea of paper and electronic records, according to the Australian National Audit Office (pdf).

But an audit into records management practices at Customs, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), and Treasury found the departments lacked the consolidated systems or business processes to support them.

Though each agency maintained a core records system, each had a further 130 electronic business systems to create, keep and manage records for email, shared folders and other data repositories key to departmental requirements.

Many of these disparate systems failed to satisfy legal requirements surrounding record management, destruction or transfer.

This created a risk that inaccurate or incomplete information could be accessed and used when making decisions or meeting legal and policy requirements — such as responding to freedom of information requests — according to the audit.

All three departments contained in the audit had experienced delays in transitioning to a digital records management environment that conformed to legal and policy requirements and was easy to use.

“Implementing digital records management systems and practices is complex, resource-intensive and requires significant cultural change,” the audit found.

Managing electronic records has been something of a novelty for many agencies. A 2010 survey of 138 government agencies found less than 30 percent managed the majority of their records electronically, despite more than half having an electronic records management systems.

Even those that had such systems experienced difficulty maintaining them.

The latest audit found agencies often had, or provided their staff with, little guidance on which records to create and which records management system to use, while meeting legal and policy requirements.


The Auditor-General found Immigration was facing significant data concerns as a result of its records management processes.

The Travel and Immigration Processing Systems (TRIPS) business system, which holds records for about 65 million people using unique identifying numbers for each person, was found to have duplicate records due to data sharing and use of different data models.

The auditor found 653,861 records in TRIPS were potential duplicates, as at June 24 2011.

The differing records and models meant data in other systems also potentially contained duplicate records.

Immigration said it was reviewing the nature and source of these data quality issues, while planning to implement new data management arrangements to address the issues.

The department had launched its digital records management system in 2000 and, in April 2012, allocated $7.9 million over four years to projects. These included a $1.2 million project to digitise archived paper records and attempts to digitise citizenship microfiche and microfilm databases.

A number of high and low priority projects remained unfunded, however, according to the audit.


Treasury installed its records management system in 2004 and was judged by the Auditor-General as having the “most mature” of the three approaches to managing its records. However, it has not been easy.

In 2007 Treasury estimated that $17 million over five years would be needed to implement knowledge and information management improvements across the department. The department did not proceed with the program in its entirety.

It invested almost $1.3 million in 2010–11 for its Collaboration and Information Sharing Project, which sought to use SharePoint as a portal to the records database. Treasury closed the project in August last year in an attempt to develop smaller projects, such as record keeping and collaboration projects.

Each of these smaller projects would need to be separately scoped, planned and managed according to business needs.

A strategic review of the Treasury in December 2011 identified staff dissatisfaction and inefficient capture of written documents as significant problems with its records system, impeding knowledge transfer within the department.

Treasury also conducted an annual IT client satisfaction survey which found that, since 2008, around 20 percent of staff were satisfied with the system.

In 2010 an average 74 percent of staff retrieved documents from the system, 45  per cent  captured documents but only 20 percent of staff edited documents using the consolidated database.

Low utilisation of the system indicated a significant risk that records are not being properly captured.


Customs was the only department of the three audited not to currently maintain a digital records management system, despite attempting to procure one for more than 13 years.

The department finalised a tender for such a system in February this year, which will be progressively implemented from next year.

Though Customs managed 175 disparate business systems, it still required staff to print all records to a paper file for record-keeping purposes.

Unsurprisingly, Customs identified fragmentation of information records as a “key threat” to the department in over the past year.

Customs’ ICT and records management areas has also commenced major projects to improve practices, including allocation $220 million on information systems over five years, and $8.4 million over four years to improve records management arrangements.

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