National Archives of Australia

Issue 4 October 2011

Building good governance in the Pacific

Imagine that you are building a house and the framework is weak. What do you do? You reach for your tools – preferably the ones best suited to fixing the problem at hand. This was the concept for the Recordkeeping for Good Governance Toolkit, a suite of practical products designed to aid recordkeeping in the Pacific. The Archives has played a lead role in guiding project work and sourcing project funding throughout the development of the Toolkit. Archives staff member Emma Buckley discusses the development and significance of the Toolkit

Recordkeeping: a Pacific story

Pacific records have traditionally been created and maintained through an oral tradition. Speaking to Pacific archivists in 2001, Chief Reklai Ngirmang, a high chief from the Island of Palau said: 

Our archives do not have written documents and books. Our culture and historical records are contained in oral histories and legends, which are stored in the collective memories of the people of Melekeok and which have been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries.[1] 

In addition to the challenge of reconciling traditional ways with modern methods of documentation, many Pacific countries have no existing tools, guidance or training on recordkeeping and information management. Pacific archives have also been slow to adapt to a new system that developed during the late twentieth century – where archives have increasingly taken on the role of records managers, helping control and manage records from the point of creation to when they are no longer required for use. 

Creation of the Toolkit

The Toolkit logo signifies the importance of records to memory and identity. ‘In the Pacific we say an organisation without records is like a village without a canoe,’ says outgoing PARBICA Secretary-General Mark Crookston. ‘It cannot travel forward into the future and cannot take with it the important things from its past.’

The idea for the Recordkeeping for Good Governance Toolkit was planted at a landmark Pacific Branch of the International Council on Archives (PARBICA) conference in Fiji in 2005. PARBICA members had a long discussion on the state of recordkeeping in the Pacific. The consensus was grim: records were difficult to find or even completely lost. Organisational knowledge was not being recorded (and was departing along with staff), and the right people were not taking responsibility. 

A fix was needed, members suggested, in the form of practical ‘tools’ such as information templates, checklists and guidelines that could assist with managing records. The products would send a message to all levels of government that good recordkeeping underpinned public-sector efficiency and accountability. 

Two essential requirements for the Toolkit were that it should be developed ‘by the Pacific, for the Pacific’, and that it should be written in plain English to maximise its usefulness. PARBICA members from nine Pacific countries formed a reference group to guide project work, and to scope and provide comment on products. The Archives, via PARBICA,  played a primary role in this process.

The products of the first phase of the Toolkit included a brochure for senior government officials, a recordkeeping capacity checklist, and guidance on identifying recordkeeping requirements and writing a recordkeeping policy. The checklist remains one of the most popular Toolkit products. Organisations can use it to see at a glance how well their records are being managed, and find out how they can improve their recordkeeping capacity.

The guidelines are purposefully simple and clearly written, to enhance their usefulness for public servants who may lack a strong knowledge of recordkeeping and archival concepts. They are also designed to be flexible and adaptable for different Pacific countries and organisations. 

The next phase of Toolkit products examined the archival function of classification. It covered developing, adapting and implementing a record plan (a system for titling files). Archives New Zealand led the following phase, which explored disposal and appraisal (the method of determining which records are to be created and captured, how long they are to kept, and what will happen to them at the end of their useful life). The fourth completed phase – consisting of comprehensive ‘train the trainer’ materials – aimed to enhance the ability to manage records ‘in-country’. 

Evelyn Wareham, Archives New Zealand, John Wright, honorary PARBICA member, and Ami Latu, Tonga Palace Records, Apia, August 2011. Archives New Zealand played a lead role in developing the third phase of the Toolkit.

Strategic alliances in the Pacific

The Toolkit has lifted the profile of recordkeeping in the Pacific region, with visible results. In 2009, the Pacific Islands Forum (an inter-governmental organisation that aims to enhance cooperation among the countries of the Pacific) noted the pivotal link between good recordkeeping and good governance. The practical and useable nature of the Toolkit products caught the attention of other natural allies such as Pacific public service commissioners, auditors-general and the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Alliance. These strategic partnerships have proved instrumental in helping PARBICA successfully reach decision-makers – senior officials and heads of state – with their message of recordkeeping for good governance. 

The Toolkit’s achievements have been recognised throughout the world. In 2010 it received the Australian Society of Archivists’ highest prize for a ‘publication making the greatest contribution to the archives profession in Australia written by or on behalf of a corporate body’. Toolkit products have been translated into Fijian, Samoan and Palauan, and into French by the Association des Archivistes Français for recent workshops in French-speaking Africa and Haiti. 

The digital realm and beyond

In the Pacific – as is the case worldwide – the amount of digital information being generated by organisations is increasing exponentially. For Pacific organisations struggling with limited resources, inadequate systems and virtually no opportunities for recordkeeping training and development, the digital challenge can seem overwhelming. 

The latest phase of the Toolkit aims to address this challenge. Phase 5 provides advice and assistance on developing and implementing sustainable digital recordkeeping strategies for Pacific organisations. Work on the recent products was led by the Archives, with AusAid contributing funding for product development, workshops and reference group meetings. Phase 5 products include: 

  • a self-assessment checklist that agencies can use to assess their ‘digital readiness’
  • advice on managing email; choosing and implementing a digital recordkeeping strategy; and undertaking scanning or digitisation projects
  • systems and software checklists to test how well existing business systems support good recordkeeping
  • potential low-cost solutions to preserving born-digital records.

These Toolkit products were officially launched by the Australian High Commissioner to Samoa at the 14th PARBICA conference, held in Apia in August. Two days of the conference were devoted to workshops based on the Toolkit, presented by staff from the National Archives of Australia and Archives New Zealand. 

Helen Walker, Director, Strategic Relations and Personal Records, with Dr Stephen Henningham, Australian High Commissioner to Samoa, launching the Toolkit products at the 14th PARBICA conference, Apia, August 2011.

More opportunities beckon: next year, the city of Brisbane plays host to the 2012 International Council on Archives Congress, the world’s premier archival conference. It will be the first time that the Congress – which occurs every four years – takes place in the Australasian/Pacific region. For PARBICA, the Congress provides a mass international audience highly receptive to its ‘recordkeeping for good governance’ message. Like the white canoe imprinted on its products, the Toolkit keeps moving forward – on to new waters and new challenges. 

1 Wareham, Evelyn, ‘From explorers to evangelists, recordkeeping and remembering in the Pacific Islands’, Archival Science, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 187–207. 

Want more? 

PARBICA website 

Read more about the Archives’ international activities 

One comment on "Building good governance in the Pacific"

  1. Bob Hitchcock says:

    A wonderful initiative – the combination of oral histories and written records will be the envy of many.

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