Friday 24 April 2015

To retain or not to retain, that is the question: PROV's new record keeping policy

 Interest in records management tends to be events driven.  Last year the release of the Privacy and Data Protection Act 2014 (PDP Act) heightened awareness of data security issues for government entities.  Then in the lead up to the 2014 State election, minds were turned to which documents should be retained, or not retained, as the case may be.  

But best-practice records management presents constant challenges in respect of both form and content of records.  Records now come in diverse forms - not only traditional paper documents and record-keeping or business systems, but also email and social media accounts and network drives, for example.  But their significance is premised on their nature and content, which in some cases can be difficult to assess. 

Additional guidance is now to hand.

New policy released

In February this year, Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) released an over-arching policy on record-keeping for the Victorian Government, pursuant to its responsibility for collecting and preserving records from all Victorian government and local governing bodies whose records are public records under the Public Records Act 1973 (PR Act).    

PROV's new 'Record Keeping Policy: Appraisal Statement for Public Records required as State Archives' (Appraisal Statement) sets out the key appraisal considerations for specifying and identifying those Victorian records that are of permanent value to the Government and people of Victoria.  

What is 'appraisal'?

Appraisal is the process by which those records that are required for preservation as State Archives are identified by Government agencies.  In PROV's words:
appraisal is a planned and documented process based on research and analysis to provide transparent, reasoned and consistent reasons for the retention or non-retention of records. It is a reasonably complex, judicious and somewhat subjective process that involves the evaluation of the continuing value of records for the government and community against the cost of retaining and keeping the records accessible in perpetuity.
PROV has divided the characteristics of records of enduring value into the following six categories:
  1. The authority, establishment and structure of government;
  2.  Primary functions and programs of government;
  3. Enduring rights and entitlements (of individuals and groups);
  4. Significant impact on individuals;
  5. Environmental management and change; and
  6. Significant contribution to community memory.
Some of these activities and associated records are relatively self-evident.  For example, in respect of the second category, PROV lists the State budget papers as an example of 'Records that illustrate the government's role in the management of the Victorian economy'. 
However other categories, notably the fourth, are potentially more problematic.  Here PROV's guidance is particularly useful in circumstances where appraisal decisions may affect the 'most vulnerable members of Victorian society'.  Records listed as potentially falling into category four include:
  • Collections and analyses of data compiled for planning and decision making;
  • Representations and appeals against the decisions/actions of government or legislature; and
  • Petitions documenting significant community opposition to government actions or policies.

Records not of permanent value

But what about those records appraised as not being of permanent value? All public records must continue to be retained for as long as they're needed to meet Government's administrative needs and legislative requirements, and to support accountability and community expectations. Section 19 of the PR Act has the effect that it is unlawful to dispose of or destroy a public record other than in accordance with a Standard made under s 12.  Minimum periods are set out in the Standards, or Retention and Disposal Authorities, issued by PROV for use by Government agencies.

Retention periods and personal information

Since opinions may differ as to how an individual record should be categorised in light of the Standards, these minimum periods are not without controversy, particularly in light of the requirements of Information Privacy Principle (IPP) 4.2 of the PDP Act (and its predecessor in the Information Privacy Act 2000).  IPP 4.2 requires destruction or permanent de-identification of personal information 'if it is no longer needed for any purpose'. 

The PR Act prevails over IPP 4.2 as a result of s 6 of the PDP Act (and previously s 6 of the IP Act).  Decisions of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal have accepted that personal information retained pursuant to a requirement of the PR Act is still relevantly 'needed' for a purpose (Caripis v Victoria Police(Health and Privacy) [2012] VCAT 1472; Zeqajv Victoria Police (Human Rights) [2013] VCAT 2105). 

Agencies should therefore be aware that retention of personal information beyond the retention period specified in a relevant Standard increases their risk if a complaint is made under IPP 4.2.  Moreover, when protective data security standards are released this year under the PDP Act, agencies may need to reevaluate the cost of managing any records that they are not required to retain.

If you are in the Victorian Government and would like assistance in respect of your agency's records management or privacy obligations, contact:

Managing Principal Solicitor
9947 1403

Senior Solicitor
8684 0483

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