Who cares if records get lost?

Records life-cycle consisting three stages: cr...

Records life-cycle consisting three stages: creation, maintenance, and disposition of the record. FEA (2005). FEA Records Management Profile, Version 1.0. December 15, 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we hear about the lost records at the Home Office or other public sector organisations, many of us will not give it a second thought. We think that lost files or poor records management are facts of life. We just live with it as governments and organisations muddle through somehow and deliver their services. As long as services are being delivered and nothing is going obviously wrong, the public are content to ignore such internal matters. Even when these files contain something out of the ordinary, such as allegations of child sexual abuse by powerful people, many people have explained the lost or missing records as not something out of the ordinary. Records get lost on a regular basis or they get destroyed as part of the normal records management process. In local government, if the documents are not part of the official decision process, then there is no reason to keep them or provide them to the local Records Office. In the case of the child sexual abuse allegations, the file was small and to some commentators it was relatively unimportant as it only contained allegations. For others, the lost files are explained by the lack of space at the Home Office; which would explain why the files were destroyed. As The Telegraph cautioned that an undue focus on the lost records and the allegations could create an atmosphere conducive to a witch-hunt.[1] ?

Records? We lost those, sorry. Were they important?

At first glance, these views make sense.[2] They appear to explain what happened. It was as an unfortunate incident that happens with unsurprising regularity. Organisations struggle with records management as they lack space to manage the records. Records management is rarely given a high priority and few organisations approach it in a systematic way. For many employees, filing and managing records is neither glamorous nor a priority. For senior managers, and corporate directors, what matters is the organisation delivers its work. If a few files get lost, that is the cost of doing business. Middle managers have higher priority to deliver products and outcomes to their customers and clients.[3] Given that records management is a low priority, often handled as an afterthought or by junior employees, it would appear that lost records only become a concern when their content creates the necessity to find them. If the records had been something else, such as an invoice for an IT project, we would be less concerned. Whatever their priority, we know the police have begun to investigate the child sexual abuse allegations, so do we really need to be concerned with lost records or poor records management?

Without records you cannot hold power to account.

The short answer is yes. You need to be deeply concerned for three main reasons. The first reason is that lost records affect the organisations and the employees that manage the records. The second reason is that the flawed records management, which allows records to be lost, undermines democratic and historical accountability for a community and for the individual. We can see this problem in the Daniel Morgan murder investigation and the Shaw Report. The third reason is the lost records fail to dispel the possibility of a cover-up that destroys the faith in justice.

Archivists are haunted by lost records of potential political misdeeds

For archivists the case in Westminster should raise deep concerns. Although the testimony by those in charge of the records appeared to allay concern about the records being destroyed or edited on purpose, the case contains has a powerful shadow of the way that archives within a political organisation or the police can be threatened. The case will remind archivists of something that haunts the profession. All archivists, and most records managers, will have heard of Heiner Affair and the Nordlinger Affair in Australia.[4] These are Australian cases where public documents were shredded to hide evidence of abuse of young people within the care of the government. The case revealed that politicians pressured records managers and archivists to remove documents and destroy documents to avoid accountability. The same is likely to have occurred in the United Kingdom. The state of records keeping associated with children in care shows a shocking disregard for accountability. The Home Office case is the highest profile example of “lost records”, but it is not the only one nor will it be the last. However, the problem is not new. The problem of lost records is common in local government.[5] Many organisations will cover up their malfeasance through such excuses as lost records. We have seen court cases collapse because of poor records management. The Daniel Morgan murder trial is only one of many cases where poor records management has caused a case to collapse.[6] Even more recently the claim that records were deleted in the phone hacking trial with News Corporation shows the way that records will be deleted. The problems with organisational records management reveal a deeper political problem.

Records create democratic accountability

Without records it is difficult to hold the powerful to account. We only need to consider how Magna Carta, the UK government’s oldest piece of legislation, remains a touchstone as it contains the country’s fundamental political contract. The same role is played by historic town and city charters. Even though we are not interested in historical artefacts they do show how records are used to hold the powerful to account. If the powerful contravene the promises within these documents or the promise that the document expresses, then they can be held to account. However, it is a truism that political power resists the efforts to control or constrain it. The politically powerful seek to manage the ways they are held to account so they can control it or influence it.[7] They will use their power and position, and the resources it provides, to protect themselves and their office. If records create an account against which they can be judged, they will delete, discredit, or destroy it. Even if they welcome it because of political necessity, they will seek to influence it to reflect their interests or the interests of their office. We know from history that to avoid accountability, powerful people and organisations will destroy records that show their faults or criminality.[8] In extreme situations, powerful people will try to influence the records management process or the archival process by putting pressure on archivists and records managers. Such outcomes are not reserved to tyrannies or totalitarian regimes, they also occur in democracies.[9] From the smallest parish council to Parliament, no government is immune from this behaviour. Even without the extreme example of the Heiner affair, the basic problem is that when records are unavailable or inaccessible, democratic accountability is thwarted. The individual cannot hold their government or government representative to account. We have seen in history how repressive regimes regularly destroy records and seek to edit history to avoid accountability. In extreme situation they attempt to edit their opponents or misdeeds from history.[10] The only criminal sanction in the Enron scandal occurred because of the large scale destruction of records to avoid accountability.[11] The pressure to edit records and edit history is something that concerns all records managers and archivists in large part because it makes the complicit in a cover up.

The problem of cover ups

The lost records and the failure to retain documents are issues that go to the core of the archival field and raise deep questions about political accountability, archival independence, and archivist professional ethics and standards. These issues are now more prominent today as social media makes the public and organisations aware of how events are captured and recorded. In addition to public archives and records, which create institutional memories to hold governments and organisations to account, we now have personal records and memories to create an alternative to challenge the official record. We have learned from the Hillsborough tragedy that the Police lied about the events, attempted to cover up their lies, and the Sun proclaimed the official record by claiming it was the truth. They acted in concert to create public story, an official record, to explain the event and shift blame to the Liverpool fans. Only through determined families and individuals, who wanted truth and, were the police and the press brought to account. Without the Hillsborough Inquiry’s records, the families would be denied a chance at justice.

Rotherham: an outlier or a harbinger?

In the Rotherham scandal, records disappeared from the organisation. Reports were suppressed and kept from being recorded in the Council’s formal decision process, which meant that they were not retained.[12] If the records were managed appropriately, they would have been either submitted to Members as part of the public record or they would have been retained as evidence of officer decisions. However, in both cases, they were not included so that they could not be retained for historical accountability. The officers avoided organisational scrutiny and, for the most part, historical scrutiny. One witness, in a sworn statement, has alleged that records of the scale of the sexual abuse, which would have shown the council’s and the police’s short comings, were removed from a locked filing cabinet within a secure Council office.[13] In the Rotherham case, like the Hillsborough case, other organisations and people retained enough of the records to show the files that existed and were able to demonstrate that the organisation “knew” of them. If the records are not kept or are destroyed or “lost”, it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to obtain justice.

Is asking for good records management asking for a witch hunt?

When the media, like the Telegraph raise concerns about the possibility of a witch hunt, they may be taking a myopic view.[14] As such, it can make it appear that the concern for poor record keeping around child abuse allegations is only a concern for records manager and archivists. The records relate to someone’s life. Moreover, the UK’s less honourable history is demonstrated in the way it has handled records of the most vulnerable: looked after children.[15] The state becomes their parents by default. When the state loses their records or destroys their records, it takes away their childhood memories. It takes away their voice. It takes away their ability to seek justice. However, some governments, perhaps ones more sensitive to the problem of historical injustice at the hands of those who had power over them, have listened to their citizens and taken steps to right historical wrongs. In the UK, Scotland has done this with the Shaw report.

What is the Shaw Report?

The Shaw Report refers to Scotland’s Historical Abuse Systemic Review: Residential Schools and Children’s Homes in Scotland 1950 to 1995.[16] Tom Shaw led the work and wrote the report. The report catalogued the institutional abuses children and young people suffered over decades in Scotland’s Residential Schools and Children’s homes. It revealed the poor record keeping by the homes and the local government that denied the adult survivors a chance to recover their childhood memories. They were denied the records children (and adults) take for granted.

How Scotland used its devolved powers to protect the vulnerable

Scotland used devolved powers to create the report and change its records management system. England has refused to do this. It is not surprising given the scale of abuse and the way the establishment treated looked after children. It is time that England reformed its records management system to deliver the opportunity for justice to its most vulnerable. It needs to give its children a chance to retain their childhood memories.[17]

Why does Parliament resist the need for good records management?

When we see the lost files in this context, we see the deeper problem. This is not a problem of Westminister mandarins. This is not a problem of selective record keeping. This is not a problem of competing institutional priorities. This is a problem of justice. Justice is the core of any decent political society. If justice is unavailable to victims, can any government consider itself decent or civilized? Parliament’s refusal to change its approach to records management raises questions about its commitment to justice. It suggests an institutional resistance to being held to account by the public let alone the victims. Parliament is accountable only to itself. When the issue is framed as “a few lost records”, it suggests an inability to see what the problem represents. The question gets to the heart of the British society. We either have a decent political society where we are equal and accountable before the law or we have a society where the strong can do as they will and the weak must suffer because they lack the power to defend themselves. Democratic accountability starts with records management. The desire to avoid accountability seems to be a common theme rather than an unintended outcome. If Britain is to address the issue of historical child abuse and child sexual exploitation, it must get its records in order. If Westminster will not prioritize records management how can it claim to have a democratically accountable government? To put it directly, it is time that England had its equivalent of a Shaw report. Scotland has done it so why can’t England?


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10956642/Witch-hunts-thrive-in-a-climate-of-fear.html

[2] What most people will not know, though, is that in 1952 (5 September 1952) the Home Office issued a circular HO 200/52 that stated “Indecent practices in approved schools or boys and criminal offences involving the interests of boys or girls detained in approved schools”. Thus we find evidence that records should be kept of allegations and such matters should be reported to the police. (see paragraph 7). The next questions are whether such allegations were reported and what happened to the records?

[3] A priority can be used to justify any course of action either to avoid something or to do it. The most well-known is the priority of national security. All organisations have these priorities and are able to refer to them as needed. For example, the police will refer to their priority to fight crime or maintain order. A local council might say that social services are the priority. You might see this referred to as a “duty of care” such as a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of employees. Curiously, when an accident occurs, the organisation will do all that it can to either get out of this duty of care, strict view of the issue, or demonstrate that it was taking all the minimum steps necessary but could not do more because of other priorities. In rare occasions, an organisation might look at all of its priorities and consider whether it has chosen the right ones. Perhaps, you might ask your local councillor or your MP or the government department what their priorities are and how they reconcile them when they conflict.

[4] http://www.mybestdocs.com/hurley-c-lucas-keynote0703.htm   (accessed 19 January 2014)

[5] Consider that in 1952 the Home Office issued instructions that allegations were to be reported to the police. Many did not and fewer recorded heir abuse as many have no records relating to any abuse or allegations of abuse.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28212710 (accessed 19 January)

[6] See reference to cases in Wales. Cite the reference to Daniel Morgan found elsewhere in a previous blog.

[7] See for example the different types of holding to account. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20081023163307/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/38.pdf (accessed 19 January 2015)

3.5 It is helpful to consider further what the notion of accountability entails. One analysis 1  has split it into four aspects:

giving an explanation – through which the main stakeholders (for example Parliament) are advised about what is happening, perhaps through an annual report, outlining performance and activity;

providing further information – where those accountable may be asked to account further, perhaps by providing information (e.g. to a select committee) on performance, beyond accounts already given;

reviewing and, if necessary, revising – where those accountable respond by examining performance, systems or practices, and if necessary, making changes to meet the expectations of stakeholders; and

granting redress or imposing sanctions – if a mechanism to impose sanctions exists, stakeholders might enforce their rights on those accountable to effect changes.

1 Barbaris P (1998) ‘The New Public Management and a New Accountability’ in Public Administration, Autumn. Also Neale A and Anderson B (2000) ‘Performance Reporting for Accountability Purposes – Lessons, Issues, Futures’ paper at International Public Management Workshop, Wellington, New Zealand

[8] In Hannah Arendt book Eichmann in Jerusalem, we see that in the final year of the war, the Nazis tried to destroy records of the Final Solution in the belief they could avoid or minimize the accountability.

[9] We can see this in the way Wikipedia accounts are edited by powerful people through their proxies.

[10] In extreme situations people are banished from history. The Damnatio memoriae refers to this process. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damnatio_memoriae

[11] The case against the accounting firm Arthur Andersen as a result of shredding documents that revealed Enron’s faulty accounting practices was ultimately overturned.  http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/31/business/31wire-andersen.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (accessed 19 January 2015). The case was overturned because the burden of proof to determine criminal intent was too low. However, it still shows that it was records management and the destruction of records that was the turning point.

[12] Unless a document held by an officer is entered into the official decision making process either through a Cabinet meeting or through an official decision, it will not be retained in the archives.

[13] The Home Office researcher at Rotherham explains what happened. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/child-sexual-exploitation-and-the-response-to-localised-grooming-followup/written/12361.pdf (accessed 19 January 2015)

[14] A less charitable view would be to suggest that they have an institutional interest in dismissing the story as they work within a political framework and, like the Sun, they have a relationship with those in power which they wish to nurture. However, such an uncharitable view would need someone else to investigate it.

[15] Other records capture the UK’s history such as the Kenya torture records and many of these were destroyed. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/apr/18/britain-destroyed-records-colonial-crimes

[16] http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/11/20104729/0 (accessed 19 January 20150

[17] http://www.nas.gov.uk/recordKeeping/legislationReview.asp (accessed 19 January 2015)

The record keeping review led to the change in the law in Scotland. Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011 http://www.nas.gov.uk/recordKeeping/publicRecordsBillNews.asp (accessed 19 January 2015)

A model system was developed that all Scottish public authorities had to follow to comply with the public records act (Scotland) 2011. http://www.nas.gov.uk/recordKeeping/PRSA/modelPlan.asp

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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8 Responses to Who cares if records get lost?

  1. A very good article indeed Lawrence. Very perceptive. I’d never really considered the issue of lost records to be so significant. Thank you for this.


    • Alastair,
      Thanks for the positive comments. Records are the lifeblood of government. They are often overlooked and that is what causes problem as those who want their decisions to avoid scrutiny will want to do everything verbally.
      If you want to know if someone can stand up behind what they have said simply ask them to put it in writing. That is the question to separate the wheat from the chaff.


  2. Lorraine says:

    Reblogged this on IMPossible Archives and commented:
    Who cares if records get lost? The Shaw Report presents a measurable change in the approach to records management and offers a starting point for studying whether a change in records management has an effect on improved governance and accountability.


  3. Massimiliano Grandi says:

    It is important not to take for granted that everyone wishes to implement good records management systems and practices.

    Effective records management, in our societies, always implies that you are accountable for the information you create and keep and that in due course (i.e. when established by the relevant retention periods) such information may be retrieved and used to give evidence of what you have done; or have failed to do.

    Are we sure that everyone longs for transparency with regard to his or her deeds?

    Accountability and transparency are not the only purposes of records management: records management also thrived in societies that could not care less for them, but in our world these are unavoidable side-effects of good records management, which is obviously feared by many people, including several decision-makers.


    • Thank you for your comment, it is a good point. People may not want to implement good records management and that is something that needs to be understood. However, I would not want to suggest that poor records management is always intentional. In many ways, it occurs because of human nature as it is about recording what has happened and humans tend to look to the future and the immediate and not the past and the distant. For many people, records management is the detail that is only significant by its exception.

      Most people want to know who won the game not how many penalties were called on 3rd down (to use a US Football metaphor) so will be less interested in recording that relatively less interesting detail. However, in a government, which is based on the idea of accountability such an approach can prove problematic. To rule in a democracy is to be accountable. In that sense, a country’s culture and an organisation’s culture will influence its approach to records management. I would suggest, perhaps tentatively, that Scotland only undertook the Shaw Report when it had the devolved power to do so. In that sense, the government wanted to be accountable to its citizens as part of the democratic “contract” so that the public can have faith in the government and what it does and has done.

      At the same time, we have to be mindful that organisations, as bureaucracies, desire secrecy so that they can be effective and efficient. We would find it difficult, if not impossible, for an organisation, let alone a government, to operate on total transparency. However, that is not the choice. The issue here is whether the organisation will be accountable through its records, which is only a limited, and to a large extent, managed approach to transparency. Perhaps this illustrates that many organisations are not even transparent to themselves. That idea, though, would be a topic for another blog.

      Thanks again for your comments.


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