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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

NSW Ombudsman speaks truth to power on FOI

The NSW Ombudsman's Annual Report was tabled in Parliament today.

FOI issues come in for strong comment and the Ombudsman's views provide further support for those who voted last week in favour of a Bill calling for an independent review of the Act.

“The significant and disturbing downward trend in the full release of documents under FOI has continued for the ninth year running,” the Ombudsman Bruce Barbour said.

In 1995-96, over 80% of FOI applications resulted in the full release of documents. This figure has steadily declined to only 55% in 2004-05. Over the same period the numbers of applications where only some documents or some parts of documents have been released has tripled (from 12% to 34% of determinations).

“NSW has the lowest rate of full release of documents of all mainland states and the
Commonwealth,” the Ombudsman said. “The rate of full release in NSW is 20% below the average for these other states and the Commonwealth.”

The Ombudsman reiterated that the Act is long overdue for review. “We have been calling for a comprehensive review of the FOI Act for over a decade,” he said. “In the absence of any such review, we will consider conducting our own review of the FOI Act next year."

Over the 17 years since the FOI Act was introduced, amendments have been piecemeal resulting in the Act becoming fragmented, and not in line with current circumstances. For example, since the implementation of the Act, agencies have been moving from paper-based document management systems towards electronic systems. The Act has not made adequate provision for these changes.

“As I have been saying for years, the FOI Act is not effective in keeping agencies
accountable to the public,” said Ombudsman Bruce Barbour.

The Section of the report dealing with FOI matters includes case studies concerning omplaints against the former Department of Infrastructure, Plannning and Natural Resources, NSW Police, Department of Corrective Services, Motor Accident Authority and Department of Primary Industries. The Chapter is here 16 foi.pdf
The Ombudsman also tabled a report on agency compliance in 2004-2005 with annual reporting obligations - 11 of 70 agencies surveyed were substantially inadequate in providing statistics, and 40 of 90 surveyed were seriously deficient or failed altogether to provide an assessment of the impact of FOI on the agency. The Report is here.

The only public voices to suggest things are going well with FOI have been the Premier during a recent Budget Estimates Committee hearing and the one Government speaker in debate in the Legislative Council last week.


  1. Anonymous9:27 am

    It is misleading to categorise an increase in the number of applications partially released as symptomatic of a culture intending to frustrate the disclosure of information generally, as has been simplistically assumed in the Ombudsman's Report. In large, complex applications there will invariably be references to incidental information such as individual's names or contact details. While it is probably not not prejudicial to the applicant's cause and intended use of the information, the withholding of a single private phone number means the entire application is recorded as only 'partially' released.

    The context of how these statistics are compiled needs to be included in any examination of the results, rather than simply taking a free kick to support the populist view that all agencies are anti-FOI and contrive to minimise the information released to applicants in all circumstances.

  2. I think you're right. The raw stats themselves don't reveal the full picture. However the Ombudsman is on good ground in pointing to the trend over time in the increase in refusals, either in whole or in part. On that basis the FOI story in NSW (and elsewhere)is not satisfactory.