Go to top of page

4. Supporting good recordkeeping

Key messages in this chapter

  • Recordkeeping is more likely to be done to the required standard if agencies recognise and encourage good recordkeeping and discourage poor recordkeeping.
  • Workflow/risk analysis is a key consideration when developing policies to support good recordkeeping. This can be achieved through the National Archives’ DIRKS process (Designing and Implementing a Recordkeeping System), which can provide a guide for identifying which records must be created and kept.
  • Recordkeeping can also be encouraged as part of a broader information and knowledge strategy or framework.
  • Considerations that support good judgement about record creation and recordkeeping include the context and financial value of the event or decision, and the benefits (versus potential liability and cost) of creating the record.

Strengthening the reasons for individual APS employees to be good recordkeepers

A strong indicator of how important recordkeeping is to an agency is the strength of the agency’s ‘business case’ or reasons given to its employees to maintain good records.

Recordkeeping is more likely to be done to the required standard if agencies:

  • recognise and encourage good recordkeeping (e.g. through performance ratings/ pay, promotions/improved promotional prospects, public recognition)
  • discourage bad recordkeeping (e.g. through poorer performance ratings and promotional prospects, loss of performance pay, underperformance action or, in extreme cases, disciplinary action/termination of employment)

This is one of the most fundamental impediments, or opportunities, for an agency to improve its recordkeeping capability: improve the business case for individual staff to be good record keepers, and make it easier to do.

The Management Advisory Committee recognises that the business case for individual APS employees to meet their recordkeeping obligations needs to be reinforced.

While different approaches will be appropriate for different agencies, the fundamental ‘economic levers’ are the same:

  • Recordkeeping needs to be made simpler and easier for the majority of APS employees—and this will require a shift of emphasis towards the use of recordkeeping specialists and enabling IT solutions.
  • This may require a resource reallocation—but should not necessarily result in a cost to the overall budget. Though short-term expense may be incurred in changing recordkeeping frameworks, this can be offset by increased productivity by freeing up the time of most APS employees, and the expected efficiency gains from more ready access to useful records. If it does not, it is probably evidence that recordkeeping obligations may not have been appropriately met in the past.
  • Agencies may need to consider whether good recordkeeping practices are currently being sufficiently recognised and rewarded (e.g. through agency performance management/performance pay regimes).
  • Poor recordkeeping needs to be dealt with through training, under agencies’ performance management frameworks, or for very serious failings, through code of conduct proceedings if appropriate.

The National Archives’ DIRKS process

Workflow and risk analysis is a key consideration when developing policies and directions to support good recordkeeping.

Workflow and risk analysis can be achieved through the DIRKS process (Designing and Implementing a Recordkeeping System) developed by the National Archives.

The DIRKS methodology consists of the following eight steps:

  1. preliminary investigation (Step A)
  2. analysis of business activity (Step B)
  3. identification of recordkeeping requirements (Step C)
  4. assessment of existing systems (Step D)
  5. identification of strategies for recordkeeping (Step E)
  6. design of a recordkeeping system (Step F)
  7. implementation of a recordkeeping system (Step G)
  8. post-implementation review (Step H).

Of the eight steps comprising DIRKS the National Archives had, in the past, promoted the use of the first three steps surrounding the appraisal component to agencies requiring a Records Disposal Authority. The Management Advisory Committee considers that, as it currently stands, the DIRKS process, particularly steps B and C, is often too complex and resource intensive. The National Archives has developed a new one-step process for agencies for obtaining disposal authorities that will comply with the International and Australian Standard (AS ISO 15489).

For agencies, the new process will:

  • comprise only one step with one supporting document
  • focus only on higher level business activities (i.e. high level roles and responsibilities)
  • be supported by implementation advice so that they can take prompt disposal action
  • be flexible so that agencies can:
    • focus on core business for disposal authorisation
    • focus on particular categories of records that are creating storage problems and incurring costs.

Information and knowledge strategies

Recordkeeping in the context of broader knowledge objectives can also be facilitated and encouraged through adopting and promoting an information and knowledge strategy or framework.

In its most recent report into recordkeeping in the APS, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) encouraged agencies to adopt just such an approach.17

Such ideas are not new. In 1993, the Information Exchange Steering Committee proposed an information model for electronic documents and records which could be used to manage workflows, policy, procedures and information management processes based on their importance and relevance to APS organisations.18

It characterised information as being ‘owned’ by an individual; a work group; or, the whole organisation or agency, and emphasised different management processes including the role of normal administrative practice to dispose of records.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics successfully uses this model, incorporating the DIRKS process, to manage its information environment (see below for the full case study).

Making a judgement on record creation

Whether a record is required to be made of a particular occurrence depends on all the relevant circumstances, but in the absence of a specific legal obligation to do so, it comes down to judgement.

In most instances, the judgements will be reasonable easy, and similar considerations apply to decisions about when you should create a record, as to decisions about whether it is a valuable or useful record that needs to be corporately managed.

If a record of a particular occurrence/decision/action is necessary for administrative or business purposes then such a record should be created, with as much information as required to make it useful or fit for purpose.

Relevant considerations

Often the pros and cons of a particular judgement call will be readily apparent, but the following indicators are useful to assist APS employees make reasonable decisions on when to create (or when not to create) a record.

As a simple guiding principle, the more important the occurrence the greater the requirement to create a record, and the more comprehensive that record needs to be. Importance in this sense means the greater the benefit to the Commonwealth if a record is made and/or the greater the risk/cost if a record is not made. Factors that will impact on this assessment typically include:

  • Context—is it an important communication? Generally speaking, all official external communications will be important, while internal communications will generally be more important the more senior the people involved, or if they document a direction or decision that authorises action.
  • Financial value—the higher the value, the more likely due care and diligence require the making of a record in relation to any decision or action with financial implications (see also Financial Management and Accountability Act, Regulation 12), which requires any approval of expenditure of public money to be recorded in writing as soon as practicable.
  • Benefit—would ready access to such a record materially benefit the Commonwealth or the agency, as distinct from being of mere transitory, facilitative use to individuals? And would access to such a record provide a material benefit greater than the cost of producing such a record?
  • Potential loss or liability—would the lack of access to such a record expose the Commonwealth to loss or liability?

Clearly, where an important action arises from a meeting—and where certainty is required regarding the extent of the action and the reasons for it—a comprehensive record should be kept.

Such a situation can be distinguished from ‘brainstorming’ style meetings where ideas are freely exchanged for further consideration, rather than action. In these circumstances, far less detailed records may be required (perhaps as memory aids rather than authoritative accounts of what views were expressed), and often no record will be required at all, at least until something worth recording has transpired.

Generally speaking, APS employees will recognise the situations when a record is required. The more difficult task is making a good record that is ‘fit for purpose’. As identified in the first chapter, if an APS employee has written anything down in the course of their employment, whether it is a well considered letter, or a hastily scribbled Post-it® note, they have created a Commonwealth record. Whether either example will be fit for purpose or need to be corporately managed depends on the context.

Advice from the Auditor-General

In his report on Magnetic Resonance Imaging Services, the Auditor-General acknowledges the need for good judgement, both in deciding when to create a record, and what to include:

The level and standard of documentation considered necessary to support an administrative process is always a matter of judgement for management as part of an organisation’s control environment. Nevertheless documentation is important for an agency to:

  • demonstrate it has taken all reasonable steps to identify and manage risks;
  • provide assurance to management that the administrative processes are adequate and have integrity;
  • record significant events and decisions;
  • be able to review its decisions and processes thereby identifying strengths and weaknesses in the process, drawing out lessons for the future;
  • in some circumstances provide support for the Commonwealth’s position in the event of a legal challenge; and
  • meet accountability obligations to the Government, Parliament and other stakeholders.

The level and standard of documentation needs to match the circumstances. However, it would be expected that both the level and standard of documentation would increase as the consequences of decisions and actions increases. While it is not necessary to record every meeting, prepare file notes of every conversation or retain all emails, it is important to record and to maintain in an accessible form:

  • significant decisions by Ministers, and the basis for them including advice on options and risks;
  • programme decisions, including decisions affecting individuals or individual businesses that may be subject to administrative review, together with the basis for the decisions and the authority for making the decision;
  • significant events, including meetings and discussions with Ministers or stakeholders or members of the public which may be significant in terms of policy or programme decision-making.19

It is not possible to exhaustively list the situations which require the creation of Commonwealth records. However, the Management Advisory Committee is confident that the overwhelming majority of APS employees have sufficient judgement, and/or have ready access to guidance if in doubt, to identify when a Commonwealth record is required to be created and filed.


17 Australian National Audit Office 2006, Recordkeeping including the Management of Electronic Records, Audit Report No. 6, 2006–07, Recommendation no. 2, para. 3.20, <http://www.anao.gov.au/director/ publications/auditreports/2006-2007.cfm>

18 Information Exchange Steering Committee 1993, Management of Electronic Documents in the Australian Public Service, Department of Finance, Parkes, A.C.T.

19 ANAO 2000, Magnetic Resonance Imaging Services—Effectiveness and Probity of the Policy Development Process and Implementation, Performance Audit No. 42, <http://www.anao.gov.au/director/publications/ auditreports/1999–2000.cfm>