23 May 2013

The release of once secret intelligence records by the Permanent Under-Secretary Department of the FCO and Cabinet Secretary are testament to a time when government thoroughly documented even its very secret parts. But how true does this remain for the government archives more generally?

The National Archives have today shed more light on the UK’s sometimes murky intelligence history with the release of further files from the FCO’s Permanent Under-Secretary’s Department (PUSD) and from the files of the Cabinet Secretary. The latest releases include juicy stories on the bugging of Edward VIII, an excellent account of a drunken meeting between Churchill and Stalin during the war, and files on early cold war intelligence re-organisation. But these releases – and the reason why they are out now – touch on a wider story of changes to government archives.

It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the British intelligence agencies were formally acknowledged to exist and put on a legislative footing. And it is only 20 years since an open government initiative by John Major’s government (encouraged by scholars such as Peter (now Lord) Hennessy) started to release files from the Joint Intelligence Committee, MI5 and GCHQ as well as defence intelligence. More and more previously withheld files have been deemed acceptable for release. The PUSD files represent the most sensitive and are still some years behind the normal releases (and likely to stay as such, particularly if they reveal methods or dealings with other countries).

Meanwhile, for less sensitive documents the rate of release is about to speed up. General government archive releases are about to start moving from thirty years behind to twenty years. Between 2013 and 2022 releases of two years of files a year will bring the releases up to 2002. Recent events at King’s College in London and at the FCO have tried to explore what the future of archive releases will bring. The increased rate of release might mean that we know more about government sooner, but this will also coincide with a period when government moved from paper to electronic filing, and fears are that the quality of information will deteriorate badly.

In 1992, the first government departments began to use electronic records management systems to store and record files. The old department ‘registry’ (a central body which received files, logged them and helped decide which to save for the nation) were increasingly replaced by electronic databases, electronic copies of files and a system that was much more reliant on individual civil servants deciding on the value of their own files. These will start to come out in 2017. By 2002 few paper files will exist.

Even apart from the issue of what civil servants decided to save, the move to electronic storage meant different ways of filing and labelling documents, not always coherently. It meant moving from minutes, memorandum, and written correspondence to emails, final drafts of word documents and – a big change – spreadsheets, databases and all sorts of other material. It means millions of ‘documents’ rather than thousands or even hundreds of thousands. It means documents on a related subject may be spread widely and, most worryingly, might not actually be that useful. Written archives have always been problematic, they only record what people want to record, but too many civil servants now seem to have anecdotes of not saving emails or not worrying about filing. The FCO have a quite robust system of archive management now, but they struggled for some years and even today not all departments are as vigilant.

So what does it matter? It matters, of course, to external scholars. The intelligence records have often been a missing dimension to government study, but actually played a major part in defining and delivering diplomatic, defence, security and sometimes economic policy. Then there are other responsibilities. As files from colonial administration during the 1950s and 1960s reveal – the FCO’s other major releases programme – the UK has a past that is still very relevant and sometimes painful for those with whom it dealt and one for which it has legal obligations, let alone moral ones. But it also matters to government – or should. At a time of high churn in staff, whether from headcount reductions, from generational changes or from movement of staff around the organisation, government is in danger of losing embedded institutional memory. Such memory is the easiest thing to take for granted when it is there, but it is much less easy to replace.


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