‘We are capturing a comprehensive record of what government has been saying’

Keeper of the National Archives Jeff James on how coronavirus has reinforced the importance of public information

Credit: The National Archives/Lauren Hurley/PA Wire

At the end of a year unlike any other, senior figures from across the civil service took part in PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World’s annual perm secs round-up to discuss how the unprecedented 12 months affected them and their organisation, and look ahead to 2021.

Click here to read more from a wide selection of government leaders.

The keeper of the National Archives Jeff James reveals how the organisation spent the year recording the story of the 2020, and using technology to open access to its historical documents.

What are you proudest of your department or agency achieving in 2020?
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of public information. Changes to the law impact everyone and through legislation.gov.uk, we have worked tirelessly to aid legal certainty, publishing emergency regulations within minutes of being made, any time of day, any day of the week. We have also captured and preserved a comprehensive record of what government has been saying on the web, intensively archiving GOV.UK, NHS.UK and other sources of official information. With our Kew home closed to the public and then open on a restricted basis, we have also worked hard to reach our audiences and respond to the huge surge of interest in our resources. The digitised collections on our website are now available free of charge anywhere in the world and our What’s On event programme and education resources and lessons have all moved online. All of this is made possible because of our amazing colleagues who have shown determination and resilience throughout this incredibly challenging year.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?
Like many others I’m sure, this has been a year when my leadership muscles have been stretched and tested in ways that I couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of 2020. There are many competing priorities, supporting staff wellbeing, managing the expectations of our researchers and ensuring, on a personal level, that I can maintain my own resilience. But I have great colleagues and collectively we have worked together to lead the organisation through this and ensure that we come out at the end in as good a shape, if not better, than when we first went into lockdown in March.  

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?
Covid-19 continues to challenge us and as I write this we are finalising arrangements to resume our services to the public after our second lockdown. While we are committed to giving the best access to the public record that circumstances allow, our overriding concern is that we provide a service while keeping our staff, researchers and collections safe. We are looking forward to welcoming our visitors with a more enhanced service. We are an organisation with a strong record of customer service and satisfaction over many years. Underpinning all our work is our business strategy Archives for Everyone and our ongoing commitment to being an inclusive, entrepreneurial and disruptive archive, which will see us remain relevant for years to come.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?
Each year, The Friends of The National Archives generously donate a Christmas tree for staff working on site and visitors to enjoy. To make sure that staff working from home don’t miss out, we have recorded a special lighting up video for them to share in this tradition and feel connected to their colleagues on site. We are also holding festive gatherings through video calls and even hosting a staff party online. It won’t be the same as previous years, but the festive spirit is very much alive at The National Archives.

Sam Trendall

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