"We help to unlock the nation’s history – but our pay is going backwards"

FDA member Cathy Williams explains how her colleagues at The National Archives work every day to preserve and share some of the most important documents in Britain's history, while supporting an entire sector. After seven years of public sector pay restraint, the FDA believes it’s time to properly recognise the skills, expertise and energy of civil servants like her

"There are so many different sides to what we do at The National Archives (TNA). As the official archive and publisher for the UK Government, and for England and Wales, we are the guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents – and as leaders of the archives sector, we also support many more archivists out there across the country. 
"Archives are about stories, about who we are as people – and they matter in all sorts of ways. Local councils, for example, can use their archive collections to improve local health outcomes. Instead of having elderly people sitting in a GP’s surgery, we’ve seen some social services working with their archives to hold reminiscence sessions, sharing historical materials with residents to help them bring local history to life and to combat loneliness. That’s just one example of how an innovative archive can have a really positive impact on a community’s health and wellbeing. We’re here to encourage the sector to shout louder about how it can make a real difference when councils are facing tough choices.

"Private businesses, meanwhile, often have incredible collections and we can support and encourage them to make the most of those. Organisations like Marks & Spencer or Boots have marked big milestones by revisiting their archives, pulling out old product designs and creating new lines based on archive materials. That shows how a properly-supported archive can actually have a big impact on the main, money-making part of a UK business. Organisations are missing a trick if they don’t look back, and part of our job is to help them unlock that value.

"Of course, the archives sector is also all about good record-keeping. If you think about high-profile inquiries such as Hillsborough or the ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, their success depends on a clear audit trail of what’s been happening. Without that, you can have no proper accountability. At TNA, we can also help the sector prepare for legislative changes like the upcoming General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), sharing best practice as they deal with complex policy. Because we’re an active collecting institution, we can provide advice based on real experience of the challenges facing the sector.

"Sometimes our role is about firefighting and supporting archivists who are saying: “My service is about to close. I need your help.” We’re there to offer support in times of tight resources for the sector, and we can use our official status to speak truth to power and have conversations in government that archivists themselves can’t have. So we act as advocate, as guide – and we also push back and provide challenge too.

"What’s the best part of my job? I’d have to say the people: my colleagues – inside and outside TNA – and the public we serve. Archives are all about people, after all, and the people I work with at the TNA are all so passionate about what they do. We want the public to come and learn about the stories that have shaped their lives and go away feeling inspired – that’s why we come to work.

"As a government department, we really are unique. The type of skills we have are often very specific – understanding how data works, how to capture and preserve information, how to make collections accessible to people – but that’s not always recognised in monetary terms. In fact, much of what we manage to achieve as a team is despite the pressure on pay and resourcing that we face.

"Most civil servants do what they do, not to make lots of money, but because they really believe in the importance of their work to the public – and that’s especially true in the culture and heritage sector, where there’s a real connection to the value of the collections we work with.

"But it increasingly feels as if there is too much reliance on the goodwill of staff. We’re not just flatlining on pay – we’re in fact going backwards. That matters because, as well as hitting morale, it limits our ability to attract and retain a workforce that brings new thinking, and brings in vital digital skills. It’s very hard to do that when the gap between what those people could earn in the private sector and what they can earn in the civil service is growing all the time.

"None of the people I work with are greedy – but, after years of pressure on public sector pay, we want to see fair pay that truly reflects the professional skills, expertise, energy and commitment that we bring to work for the public every day."

Cathy Williams is the Head of Collections & Audience Insight at The National Archives. The FDA believes that Britain’s vital public services need a pay and reward system that recognises the skills, talent and dedication of their staff. To find out more, and join our campaign for a fair and fully-funded pay rise right across the public sector, visit FDAFairPay.co.uk