Last week I attended a conference at the University of Northumbria which posed the question ‘Is there a democratic deficit in archives?’ It brought together a range of interested parties such as archivists, records managers, academics and civil servants. I went to see how the idea of democracy in archives could inform the work I do as a Research Assistant on the British Academy funded Research Project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’. This project is specifically interested in promoting the preservation of the records of voluntary organisations and civil society groups.
My initial take on the question posed by conference was: Yes! There is a significant and multifaceted democratic deficit in archives. From my perspective working with voluntary sector archives I see several issues which contribute to this democratic deficit.
Firstly, there was the focus on public records – those covered in England and Wales by the Public Records Act 1958 and Freedom of Information Act 2000 and in Scotland by the Act of 2011. In England the archives of voluntary organisations are private – they is no requirement for them to be preserved beyond the regulators requirements e.g. by Charity Commission Annual Return. In Scotland, the Act covers those delivering government contracts and services, and so does cover some voluntary organisations. Yet, overall, in both cases, the archival record of the contribution to our democracy made by civil society organisations is skewed by omitting them from the public record in most cases. This is not only a historical omission, but one carrying on into the present day, where patchy records management practices hinder our ability to mine the records of organisations to show the value they have today.
Secondly, there were some recurring themes in the conference which resonated loudly with issues encountered on the British Academy Project and also with the historical and current concerns of voluntary organisations. For example, frequent reference was made to issues of trust and accountability. This was framed in several ways, by exploring questions such as:
- How do archives create an authentic and authoritative record of the past?
- How do we know if archives are authentic?
- How can archives and records management processes improve trust and accountability?
Via examples such as the Hillsborough Independent Inquiry Panel’s Archive and alternative archives recording institutional abuse, we also considered what it means when the official record may not be trustworthy, or where it contains significant silences which amount to an injustice for victims, survivors and families. In the case of civil society and activist groups, their records really can be a way to hold the state to account – in this way, the creation of an archive can itself be considered a radical act. Yet it also begs the question of how we build trust and accountability within and across voluntary organisations. Some organisations provided the services and residential institutions which are now the concern of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Recent reports have included allegations of abuse perpetrated in youth football clubs. From my own research as a historian of youth voluntary organisations I have every reason to suspect neglect and abuse spread beyond the confines of what has been or is currently newsworthy. What chance do we have of holding organisations accountable, learning from past mistakes, or building trust with organisations, if we have no record of their activities or decision making? These questions were on my mind as I heard from IICSA, Sarah Tyacke and Sinaed Ring. Without further support, resources, and perhaps even legislation I see little prospect of a transformation in voluntary sector archives and records management practice to build trust and accountability across the sector. This is vital, as recent research suggests that trust is indeed in decline.
Related to the above is the theme of crisis and tragedy. Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner spoke strongly of wanting to improve the standards of records management without England being compelled to do so by scandal, tragedy or crisis. She recalled her experiences in Canada dealing with records in exactly these circumstances. However, the advice elsewhere jarred with this view. Somewhat tellingly, advice from the experience working in Africa suggested that we ‘never waste a crisis’ and appealed to us to capitalise on situations as they arise to raise standards and awareness of the importance of good records management. This seemed built on a wry appraisal of the likelihood of gaining political will for this kind of work at such times.
I can see how this applies to the voluntary sector. Crisis, tragedy and scandal have all hit organisations in the past and they undermine trust. There is also a sense that the sector is on high alert for the next crisis, scandal or tragedy; this could be about abuse, social care provision or funding for example. I wholeheartedly agree that promoting and facilitating good archives and records management practice in voluntary organisations should be ongoing work and this is what the British Academy Project and our new Public Policy Work seek to do. However, we are a small (but ambitious) project which cannot realistically address all of these issues.
Given the lack of support and resources to help organisations with archives and records management, the lack of capacity in existing frameworks and the low political priority it is afforded, I fear that it may indeed take a scandal or crisis for the importance of this work to really come to the fore. This could have devastating consequences for the people involved and our wider faith in civil society organisations. This would be the biggest democratic deficit in archives – that a lack of attention to the archives of voluntary organisations could eventually be used to undermine civil society itself.