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Archives and Records Association Annual Conference

Elizabeth Denham’s keynote speech at the ARA Conference ‘Challenge the Past. Set the agenda’ on 31 August 2017.


Good morning and thank you for the kind introduction. 

Having started out my career as an archivist, I always love being back with who I like to think of as my people.

Standing here as Information Commissioner in front of fellow archivists, I also recall that I was “this close” to becoming a lawyer.

I studied history and political science as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver Canada, and on graduation, applied and was accepted to law school where I planned to train in the protection of human rights.

But … it wasn’t to be. Fate, that crafty old codger, devised other plans.

I think I disappointed my parents, pursuing graduate studies in information science – in the newly-minted Master of Archival Studies program at the university. I followed my heart into the world of preserving and overseeing access to archives and historical records.

I won’t go into what date that was – but we did have a mandatory course in “machine readable records” which involved main frame computers and Hollerith punch cards.

This education launched me head-first into a fascinating career.

After graduating I worked as a Municipal Archivist in my home town of Richmond, British Columbia, and as City Archivist in Calgary Alberta, incorporating the records of the 1988 Winter Olympics.

When FOI and privacy laws were first introduced in the Canadian provinces in the 1990s I made the move to freedom of information and privacy rights.

Some of my colleagues thought this transition from archival and culture work to FOI and privacy rights represented crossing to a legislative dark side.

For me though, this crossing felt natural. Many of the ethical and policy issues archivists face have determined the standard and practices for those working with access to information and privacy rights.

After working as a municipal archivist, I then worked as a regulator in the privacy and access area for more than twelve years, across two provincial governments and at the federal jurisdiction in Canada. That was before my move to England, just over a year ago, to take up the role of the UK’s Information Commissioner.

Sunny Manchester is a place I am getting to know as my ‘local city’ – my main office is based just down the road in Wilmslow.

And I understand this is the ideal building from which to appreciate such a great city. Colleagues tell me that from the bar upstairs you can see the whole of Manchester and beyond. I may not have time to visit today but I hope to squeeze in a drink there when I return to this soaring building in three weeks’ time. It’s then my office is co-hosting the International Conference of Information Commissioners.

The event will bring together freedom of information experts and more than 50 regulators (from countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, India and Australia) as we discuss trust, transparency and progressive information rights. That shows how much of a global issue access to information has become. Records matter, whatever you’re from in the world.

But we know records matter, that’s why we’re all here today.

As most of you know, my office regulates both the Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information Act.

Last year we handled 5,000 complaints about FOI requests, over 167,000 about nuisance marketing and more than 17,000 about data protection. We have over 450 staff, with more jobs being created all the time. We are hiring!

My office is tasked with regulating both the right to know, and the right to privacy. This dual mandate helps us adjudicate and balance between public interest scrutiny of government and protection of personal privacy.

Much of our work as regulator on the FOI side relates to record keeping. Questions around the holding of information and release of records by public bodies are dealt with by my office on a daily basis.

Effective record keeping and the proper maintenance of government information is an essential public service and is a prerequisite to good governance. The responsible management of these records ensures the maintenance of institutional memory, that appropriate information is available to decision-makers, that evidence of a public body’s activities is retained, and that legal requirements are met. Information management is also necessary to meet the goals and requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.

Without the proper creation and management of records, any statutory right of access to records will prove unenforceable in practice.

If the public are to access information from public bodies, that information needs to be there in the first place.

Good records management goes beyond the ability to locate records efficiently. As you know, it is also concerned with how and which records should be created, how long they should be retained, and with their ultimate disposition – usually destruction or transfer to the archives.

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