National Archives head: ‘Organisational culture and cohesion is vital in the digital age’

Jeff James reflects on delivering major digitisation work while working in lockdown conditions

The National Archives headquarters in Kew in west London   Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

At the end of a hectic year for government, 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 an eventful 12 months affected them and their organisation, and look ahead to 2023.

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

Jeff James, keeper of the National Archives, discussed the impact of technology on the organisation’s work and its employees.

What has been your highlight of the last 12 months? 
My highlight is the successful launch of the 1921 census in January. This was a commercial project, partnering with FindMyPast who digitised the census for us, and resulting in the production of 20 million colour images of the census being made available online. The delivery of the project was made more challenging by the fact that we were working on it throughout the lockdown period, in the UK and abroad, necessitating developing safe ways of working while focusing on the delivery of a quality product. The global, online reach of this census was not lost on us and our colleagues and partners worked tirelessly to ensure that all those who were waiting to access these records weren’t disappointed. 

What was your most difficult decision in 2022?  
I think that would have to be considering safely bringing The National Archives fully out of the Covid restrictions. For staff, that meant supporting them to feel comfortable coming back into the office while also enabling new ways of working. I am immensely proud of the way colleagues have embraced our new working environment and are making it work for them.  
We also needed to make sure that our researchers and visitors felt comfortable in coming back and that we could offer them the service they’d come to expect from us. All aspects of our work and service were discussed and reviewed and now we have a new exhibition on the theme of ‘Treason’, and feedback tells me we are back to providing the best service we can. 

What is the biggest challenge facing your organisation in 2023, and how do you plan to meet that challenge as an organisation?  
In 2024/25 we will welcome the collection and staff from the Parliamentary Archives when they vacate their current home in the Palace of Westminster. 2023 is a pivotal year as we prepare for the transfer. We are thrilled to welcome the Parliamentary Archives to Kew and excited as now, paired with the launch of the ‘Find Case Law’ service and our collection of legal judgments, for the first time records from all three arms of state – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – will be brought together in one place under the stewardship of The National Archives.   

And personally, as a leader?  
There have been many unexpected benefits arising out of the pandemic, including a more flexible approach to how we work and how we offer our services (to government and to researchers). While we embrace these opportunities, especially those presented by digital, we also have to pay even more attention to our organisational culture, cohesion and identity. It will be vital to the success of the organisation and to our varied stakeholders, that we stay true to our historic mission: to collect and preserve the record, to use our expertise and knowledge to connect people with their history through our unrivalled collections, and to lead, partner and support archives at home and worldwide. 

It’s not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season?
One of our biggest tasks at this time is the release of government records under the 20-year rule, so while others are thinking about how many more turkey sandwiches they can eat, colleagues here are working to ensure that all the new records are available on our catalogue. We know that many people, including researchers, academics, writers and historians anticipate this event and the stories they hope to find.  
As well as the big political stories and policies that are unearthed there are often many quirky or human interest stories to be found. From Margaret Thatcher’s ironing board to Richard Nixon’s gift of moondust to pandas – we get the lot!  


Sam Trendall

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