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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Another year, another deadline passes for NSW FOI Manual

Summer blog

From this distance it looks as if the NSW Government has failed to deliver on its one and only FOI commitment: to produce by the end of 2006 an updated FOI Procedure Manual to assist those involved in managing FOI responsibilities to carry out their duties.

There is no sign so far, of any circular or memorandum from the Premier's Department about the new manual and the current version published in 1994 is still what's available on its website.

I know it's only the 11 January, but this has been talked about within Government since 1999 and the Premier made much of this initiative during debate last year about the need for more fundamental FOI reform.

The current manual is deficient in many respects. In addition to not providing guidance on the Act, as amended over the last 12 years, it is incomplete in outlining government policy, and fails to pick up on any of the Court and (in excess of 250) Administrative Decisions Tribunal rulings on the interpretation of the Act.

The NSW Ombudsman reported in 2005 that work on a revised version started in 1999 when his Office provided a first draft.

The Government last year stared down critics of Act and the way in which it was implemented (including the Ombudsman who repeated calls made over a 10 year period for a review of the Act) and said that all that was required was an updated version of the FOI Manual.

Here's what the Premier told a Parliamentary Budget Estimates Committee on 28 August 2006:
"..the administration continues to review the operation of the Act on an ongoing basis. Following that, along with consultation with the Ombudsman, the Government has published additional guidance for agencies in relation to Cabinet confidentiality. The Government has also been working with the Ombudsman to update the manual for freedom of information practitioners. That manual will be available at the end of this year. It will be finalised by the end of this year and will be up to date".
In fact, he repeated this three times in answer to questions about the need for a review of the Act - see the transcript here on pages 13 and 14.

Amanda Fazio MLC, the only Government speaker during debate in the Legislative Council on a Bill that would require an independent review of the Act, was obviously reading from the same script when she said on 19 October 2006:
"To ensure that applications continue to be dealt with by all agencies in an appropriate and consistent manner the Government has recently been working closely with the Ombudsman to prepare a comprehensive freedom of information practitioners manual. The manual will provide comprehensive guidance to agencies on their freedom of information obligations. It will be up to date with the latest court judgments and tribunal rulings. It will also set out whole-of-government policies for the handling of freedom of information requests. The manual is on track to be published by the end of this year. It reaffirms the Government's commitment to openness and transparency. So on that basis the Government cannot support the bill and will not support the bill".
So it looks like another "business as usual" year for FOI in NSW, or can we expect new promises, commitments (even an updated manual?) in the run up to the March election?

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