As chief executive of the National Archives, Oliver Morley stores many government records – and publishes many more. He talks to Joshua Chambers about transparency, revenue generation, and the connections between them.
For the keeper of the public records, Oliver Morley (pictured above) has an oddly sparse office, notable for its empty surfaces and the solitary bookcase whose glass doors protect rows of suspiciously pristine books.
If I were chief executive of the National Archives, I’d have the Doomsday Book as a paperweight; and if that wasn’t allowed, I’d scatter a few facsimiles of old maps around the place. But Morley is not an old-fashioned librarian, replete with tweeds and spectacle chain; in fact, he says his background is in “information services” as well as shipping and technology. He used to work for business intelligence company Thompson Reuters on multi-million pound projects, and took on the role of acting chief executive at the National Archives (NA) in March 2010 before his permanent appointment this February.
He inherited an organisation which doubled its commercial revenues to £10m last year, but the NA’s recent success was germinated in the compost of failure. “It’s harsh to say, but I have to say… it was before my time but I think there were certain licence partnerships and commercial relationships which went very badly wrong,” Morley explains. The famous example is the 2002 publication of the 1901 census, he adds, which was “somewhat catastrophic”.
In that case, the dedicated website had to be withdrawn five days after it was launched, and was only replaced by contractor QinetiQ seven months later. “Heads didn’t roll, but people were sufficiently scarred that they never wanted to do it again in that way,” he says. The NA fell out with QinetiQ over who should pay for improvements to the website, causing delays to the project. “I would say it was probably the catalyst [for change], and since then we’ve made really significant progress in a lot of areas because we do know what will work and what won’t,” he says.
In his first big test after joining the NA, Morley ran the 2008 launch of the 1911 census material – and he says that he took the organisation on a radically different tack: the NA’s investment was largely in people, while the IT risk was taken by the archives’ commercial partner. As a result, the project “didn’t have a single dropped connection”, he says.
Morley believes that over the past few years, his organisation has become more professional and able to bring “a bit of commercial nous” to its efforts. “We’ve been quite good at growing the businesses where there was an opportunity, and closing or shrinking the businesses where there was not an opportunity,” he says. For example, the archives won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise recently for developing a software package with Tessella to store digital records and update them whenever technology develops. The archives are now able to use the technology, while sharing profits from sales with the private company.
Meanwhile, the NA last year closed its publishing business, and it’s just launched a partnership with Bloomsbury. “What was clear to us was that it’s difficult to get the kind of scale you need as a small publisher,” Morley says. “It had shifted over time to a loss-making situation, and it had to be addressed.”
So Morley is pragmatic on how and where the public sector should try to earn revenue. Asked about the role of the proposed Public Data Corporation, however, he suggests that the focus should be on recouping costs rather than maximising return on assets. The government is deliberating on whether the corporation should sell public data or give it away; and Morley, who’s been involved in some of the discussions and working groups developing the idea, argues that “what you have to do is effectively split off public data which is ‘born digital’, and should be available for free”. On the other hand, he says, people should have to pay for paper records, which are more expensive to release.
This position is at odds with those of some departments and non-departmental public bodies – particularly trading funds – which rely on charging for services or are looking for new sources of revenue. And Morley is careful to recognise these competing concerns: “There is clearly a balance between the wider economic benefit you get from providing public sector information for free and the immediate financial needs of government organisations who wish to sell it,” he says. “We naturally, because of our regulatory role, balance quite strongly towards providing information for free, but we are conscious that there is a need to cover costs and provide investment.”
The NA well understands the pressures for public bodies to maximise revenue. While the spending review imposed a 16 per cent cut – a relatively light settlement – on the archives, the organisation has already had three years of flat budgets, and did pursue spending cuts prior to the formation of the new government. The NA lost 34 staff through voluntary redundancy, and also stopped opening on Mondays. “It was risky. I think there’s always a concern that we were making the wrong move,” he says, adding that “we were trying to sustain the service in the long term, and I think everyone knew at that stage that significant cuts were on the horizon.”
The cuts in opening hours were particularly problematic: “There was very significant controversy from academics who use the National Archives, and I think we could have communicated better; I think we could have consulted better throughout the process,” he admits. However, the NA was able to use the money saved to invest in its estates, making them more sustainable and bringing down running costs, he says.
Morley isn’t evasive and answers questions clearly and concisely. However, his body language is twitchy: he often stares out of the window even when speaking, and restlessly swings his legs under the table – kicking against one of his bright orange chairs. Perhaps he’s distracted by the challenges facing the organisation – for even while its budget shrinks, its work is growing.
Most obviously, the shortening of the timescale for the release of internal government data has been shortened from 30 years to 20, creating a backlog in the release of records. “We think there are going to be quite significant resource challenges,” Morley warns.
On top of this, the NA is looking to expand the information that it archives, including posts on social networks. “What we are interested in is where there is social media that is specifically about the conduct of government,” he says. “The classic reaction at the moment is: ‘Oh my God, there’s too much social media, it’s all a nightmare,’ but when you actually look at what departments or ministers are doing in terms of their tweets, at the moment they’re largely just re-tweeting their departmental websites,” he says, adding that “there may be a point where there’s very clear conduct of government taking place by social media.”
Emails from private offices are already being archived. “There’s a degree of selection on that, so we want departments to really think about what they should keep,” he says. “We can’t expect departments to collect every email from every junior official… you have to make choices at the business level.” Those choices will, of course, vary – but there’s a fair chance that the emails of private office staff will, in 20 years’ time, be pored over by hordes of inquisitive journalists and academics.
1993: Graduates from Cambridge with an MA in Economics, and joins Maersk Line
1998: Gains an MBA from London Business School
1998: Works for CSC Index/Kalchas, a systems integrator company, in its strategic consultancy division
2000: Joins Thomson Reuters and holds a variety of sales and strategy roles
2007: Promoted to head of customer experience at Thomson Reuters
2008: Moves to the National Archives as director of customer and business development, leading the team that delivers the 1911 Census release in partnership with online genealogy website www.findmypast.co.uk
2010: Succeeds Natalie Ceeney, becoming acting chief executive of the National Archives
2011: Appointed chief executive and keeper, the National Archives