Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Whiff of Controversy

The post of Chief Executive of the The National Archives (TNA) was advertised recently. The closing date for applications was 18 April.

Further particulars comprising summary job description and assignment brief were available online from Whitehead Mann Group, consultants in leadership, based in London. The summary job description also appeared on the first page of the Society of Archivists' [sic] recruitment circular.

(As a digression, we note the online assignment brief was headed Private and Confidential. This is odd and suggests the document hasn't been proof read or properly prepared for publication as it is hardly necessary to retain a heading intended for initial internal Civil Service consultation in the published version. At any rate, it is rather misleading to the reader. We possess a print-out of this document.)

These documents make interesting reading and certain points contained in them raise concerns that the selection panel, comprising Bronwen Curtis, Civil Service Commissioner, Alex Allan, Permanent Secretary to the Department of Constitutional Affairs, David Eastwood, Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia and at least one other, will strenuously need to avoid a repetition of the kind of controversy surrounding the recent appointment of the US National Archivist, Allen Weinstein.

Alex Allan


Prof. David Eastwood Bronwen Curtis

In particular SQA finds one statement contained in the 6th. paragraph of the summary job description of grave concern:

The ideal [editor's underlining] candidate will have a reputation for excellence and effectiveness in their chosen field, whether that is within archives or not.

While it goes without saying, based on past practice, the Civil Service will not appoint a qualified archivist and may not appoint a candidate even loosely connected with the profession to the post, never-the-less SQA must draw several important conclusions from this statement.

Firstly, efforts by the National Council on Archives, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, the Archives Task Force and even TNA itself, in advocating archives are undermined by this elitist tendency not to front TNA with a qualified archivist. What kind of signal does this approach give to other professionals, the general public and the media? It will hardly strengthen wider perceptions of the archives profession of which TNA claims to be leader.

There is also something of an irony in TNA, National Council on Archives, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council and the Archives Task Force wheeling out Dame Stella Rimington, retired Director of MI5 and a qualified archivist to promote archives, partly precisely on the basis she is a qualified archivist, when this apparently counts for nothing when the person specifications for the Chief Excecutive are laid down. This is Blairite cynicism and disrespect for the public in the extreme.

The second and crucial point however is that the Civil Service and their political masters view the postholder as ideally NOT a qualified archivist or even a person with a background loosely in archives. We are reminded of the appointment of Derek Lewis as Director General of HM Prison Service. Mr. Lewis had the temerity to appear on national television news immediately his appointment was announced and state he had no knowledge of the prison service what-so-ever. How this news was received by his colleagues in the prison service, the police and the general public we can only wonder.

Derek Lewis

We sincerely hope we don't witness the successful candidate for the post of Chief Executive of TNA making the same kind of public pronouncement as Mr. Lewis. We also hope to avoid the controversy seen in the USA over the method of appointing the US National Archivist.

We pose the following questions.

Are the selectors aware there is an archives profession?

Are the selectors aware there has been a controversy over the appointment of the US National Archivist?

Are the selectors aware of the vast complexities of the archives profession?

Are the selectors aware of Jenkinsonian principles?

Are the selectors aware of the involvement of the Chief Executive in the Malvine Project and MoReq?

This blog cannot be concluded without one final, grateful and positive observation. The job description summary states TNA holds 100 shelf miles of 1000 years of records. Metric Martyrs rest in peace.

SQA will watch developments with great interest and look forward to commenting on the outcome.

[For the sequel to this blog, please click here]

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