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1. What is a record?

Key messages in this chapter

  • If you can read it or obtain information from it, then it is a record, but not all records need to be retained indefinitely.
  • Every document created or received in the course of APS employment is a Commonwealth record. However, only a small percentage of records are of such significance that they will need to be retained by the National Archives.
  • There are different types of Commonwealth records: low-value; important and useful (‘current Commonwealth records’); and those that need to be retained as national archives.
  • Useful or important records assist APS employees to perform their duties efficiently, effectively and ethically—useful records help the organisation do its business and important records assist the organisation to meet its obligations.
  • Useful or important records require a high degree of corporate management to ensure they are readily accessible to all those in an agency who may require access to the information they contain.
  • Official records should be created as close as possible to the event, action or decision they relate to. Equally, the more important the matter, the more comprehensive the record should be.

Defining records

The Macquarie Dictionary (4th ed. 2005) defines ‘record’ as ‘an account in writing or the like, preserving the memory or knowledge of facts or events’ or as ‘information or knowledge, preserved in writing or the like’.

Generally speaking, in Commonwealth legislation the ordinary definition of record has been extended to include ‘information stored or recorded by means of a computer’.1

Records in an APS context

The Archives Act 1983 (the Archives Act) helps us understand what a record is in an APS context, and our recordkeeping obligations as APS employees.

The Archives Act defines:

  • what Commonwealth records are
  • what valuable Commonwealth records are
  • when and for how long they must be kept
  • when they can be disposed of.

The Archives Act does not define records prescriptively or provide an exhaustive list, as this would be impractical, if not impossible.

Instead, definitions are principles-based which means APS employees must use their judgement about recordkeeping just as our private sector counterparts do when they create, keep and dispose of their business records.

Archives Act definition

According to s. 3 of the Archives Act (definitions):

record means a document (including any written or printed material) or object (including a sound recording, coded storage device, magnetic tape or disc, microform, photograph, film, map, plan or model or a painting or other pictorial or graphic work) that is, or has been, kept by reason of any information or matter that it contains or can be obtained from it or by reason of its connection with any event, person, circumstance or thing.

Updated definition

A bill currently before the Parliament to amend the Archives Act includes an updated definition of record that is not format specific. At the time of writing, the proposed new definition is:

record means a document, or an object, in any form (including any electronic form) that is, or has been, kept by reason of:

  1. any information or matter that it contains or that can be obtained from it; or
  2. its connection with any event, person, circumstance or thing.

Note: For the definition of document, see s. 25 of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.

The reason for the updated definition is explained in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill:

This item repeals the current definition of ‘record’ which is format specific. To conform to the Australian and International Standard AS ISO 15489–2002 Records Management, this item inserts a new proposed definition which is not format specific. Both documents and objects can be records. The definition clarifies that a record does not have to be in a concrete form—it can be in any form, including an electronic form. A record can include a photograph, film, map, plan, model or painting. It can also include a sound recording, coded storage device, magnetic tape or disc, microform, and more modern technologies such as digital video discs and compact discs. Other examples of records in electronic form are emails, Internet sites, case management systems, financial accounting systems, inventory management and procurement systems, personnel management and HR systems, building management and access control systems and geographical systems.

The new proposed definition gives legislative authority to the policy direction issued by the National Archives in 1995 that provides for electronic records to have the same status as paper records. This means that records include all emails, letters, briefs, memos, minutes, diaries, notes, Post-it® notes, lists and documents (however described, whether in digital or hardcopy form, and including drafts of same), SMS messages, hard drives, back-up tapes and so on.

It is important to note that these examples do not cease to be records simply because the information contained in them may be brief, unimportant or valueless or even embarrassing to the author or the Commonwealth.

It follows from the definitions associated with the Archives Act that, at least for most practical purposes, if you can read it or obtain information from it, it is a record under the Act.

Commonwealth records

For the purposes of the Archives Act, a ‘Commonwealth record’ is essentially a record that is the property of the Commonwealth or of a Commonwealth institution.

A record is the property of the Commonwealth if created or received in the course of APS employment.

Different classes of Commonwealth records

Not all records are of equal value. There are three general classes of Commonwealth records, each forming a smaller and more valuable subset of the last:

  1. all Commonwealth records including low-value or ephemeral records (rough calculations, duplicates, working papers)
  2. useful or important Commonwealth records (‘current Commonwealth records’) including records needed for business continuity (such as financial records required under the Financial Management and Accountability and the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Acts and procedures, advice and periodic reports)
  3. useful or important Commonwealth records that are to be retained as national archives (RNA), that is, they are to be kept indefinitely. These would include significant policy documents, and records of significant decisions (including Cabinet Decisions, documents on major events or public issues).

Figure 1: All Commonwealth records

There are hundreds of different categories of records, with many different levels of importance, which may rise and fall subject to many different variables. The most obvious variables are:

  • the passage of time (which will typically, but not always, devalue a record)
  • public interest in the subject matter (this will invariably raise the value of a record)
  • actual or contemplated claims or litigation (this may transform otherwise insignificant records into important evidence)
  • Freedom of Information (FOI) applications, subpoenas, or other legal discovery obligations (this will raise the importance of a document, i.e. it cannot be disposed of while subject to an FOI or other court/tribunal ordered discovery obligation)
  • new but similar enterprises or projects (this is the knowledge management rationale behind recordkeeping: it is useful to have access to records dealing with similar themes as they may provide helpful precedents or highlight potential pitfalls and solutions, and help us avoid re-inventing the wheel)
  • drafts being superseded by finals (the former then usually becoming ‘low-value records’, see discussion below).

Records are evidence of something occurring. The closer to the relevant event, action or decision a record is created, the greater its reliability and evidentiary value. Accordingly, it is desirable that records, especially important records, be created as closely as possible to the relevant event, action or decision.

Useful or important records (‘current Commonwealth records’)

Under the Archives Act, a ‘current Commonwealth record’ essentially means ‘a Commonwealth record that is required to be readily available for the purposes of a Commonwealth institution’.2

Only Commonwealth records that are useful or important will ever fall within the class of ‘current Commonwealth records’.

Useful or important records assist APS employees to perform their duties efficiently, effectively and ethically. Useful records help the organisation do its business; important records assist the organisation to meet its obligations.

Both kinds of records are significant and need to be well managed at a corporate level. Examples include Commonwealth records that assist an agency to achieve its outcomes or some other legal, commercial or accountability imperative, or that are likely to have historical significance.

‘Current Commonwealth records’ are probably what most APS employees think about when they talk about records.

The broader definition of Commonwealth records covers many facilitative or transitory documents that might be created, acquired or collected by APS employees during day-to-day business, but which in reality are not that important or valuable to the Commonwealth. Examples of these types of records are drafts of documents that do not record significant changes in policy or direction, and informal notes and diaries. These records, which fall outside the class of ‘current Commonwealth records’, do not have to be kept on agency corporate recordkeeping systems. It is up to each agency to determine the extent to which corporate recordkeeping systems are used for such lower value Commonwealth records.

It may be reasonable and permissible, for example, to keep lower value Commonwealth records on devolved agency record storage systems (such as personal diaries, notebooks and computer hard drives), subject to direction or applicable agency recordkeeping policies. These records should only be retained as long as there is a business need to do so. Low-value records can be destroyed using a records disposal authority issued by the National Archives or under the normal administrative practice provisions of the Archives Act (see Chapter 2).

All Commonwealth records need to be managed to some degree, but it is the useful or important Commonwealth records (‘current Commonwealth records’) that require a high degree of corporate management to ensure they are readily accessible to all those in an agency who may require access to the information they contain.

While it is not possible to be prescriptive, useful or important records will typically document interactions/correspondence between an agency and external entities, such as:

  • Ministers and/or Ministers’ offices
  • members of the public (e.g. letters/ministerials, decisions affecting rights, interests or entitlements, and other citizen support services)
  • the private/commercial sector (e.g. commercial negotiations, contracts, licenses, disputes, information collection)
  • interest groups (e.g. community organisations, lobbyists)
  • other government agencies, either Commonwealth or state (e.g. Australian National Audit Office, Commonwealth Ombudsman)
  • Parliaments, legal institutions or political organisations (including Senators and Members of Parliament) and the media.

Useful and important records also include important internal communications and administrative/business documents such as:

  • personnel/HR matters (e.g. leave requests, merit selection process documents, documents relating to performance matters or disciplinary matters)
  • budgetary/financial documents and systems
  • documents that record an agency’s important actions or decisions (including reasons for such) as distinct from an agency’s ‘thought processes’ especially early deliberative processes (typically represented in drafts and requests for comment)
  • governance documents (e.g. records created to meet an agency’s statutory and administrative reporting obligations, and records created to account for the effective, efficient and ethical use of resources provided to deliver programmes).

Commonwealth records that are retained as national archives (RNA)

Good administrative practice dictates that Commonwealth records which are no longer useful or important for an agency’s business needs are either disposed of or retained as national archives (RNA).

Records classified RNA are considered to be of such national significance or public interest that they should form part of the ‘archival resources of the Commonwealth’, and should be transferred to the care of the National Archives in accordance with arrangements approved by the National Archives.

Only a small percentage of Commonwealth records are of such significance that they must be kept indefinitely.

The objectives that the National Archives and agencies must take into account when considering whether records should be regarded as retained as national archives (RNA) relate to:

  • significant issues faced in governing Australia
  • the structure and functioning of the Commonwealth and its institutions
  • protection and future wellbeing of Australians and their environment
  • interaction of people with the government
  • an understanding of aspects of Australia’s history, society, culture and people.

1 Section 25 of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.

2 Section 3 of the Archives Act 1983.