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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ex public service boss flags FOI shortcomings

Andrew Podger knows a bit about public management. He was a distinguished public servant for 37 years, including stints as Secretary of the Federal Department of Health and Public Service Commissioner. Now as President of the Institute of Public Administration Australia, he continues to take a close interest in what's going on within the government system.

Here's an extract from an interview on ABC 7.30 Report about an article by Podger in the latest edition of the AJPA Journal:
KERRY O'BRIEN: You've also expressed concern at what sounds like a deliberate sabotaging of at least the spirit of freedom of information principles by public servants, destroying diaries, making fewer file notes, minimising the paper trail of decision making. You've said, quote, "The trail that is left is often now just a skeleton without any sign of the flesh and bones of the real process and even the skeleton is only visible to those with a need to know." That's a less than healthy development, isn't it?

ANDREW PODGER: I use that as an illustration of the way this pressure to be responsive has led to public servants reducing the power of their views on due process. That they've backed off on due process. The FOI act has, in its beginning of it, has a series of requirements to interpret this act as widely as you can to give access as much as you possibly can to the public, to information that's held in the public service.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Is that now being interpreted much more narrowly?

ANDREW PODGER: Exactly, that there is a much more pervasive view that there should be not release of documents unless it can be demonstrated it really is in the public interest, whereas the Act requires you to release it unless it can be demonstrated that it's not in the public interest to release it.

KERRY O'BRIEN: When you talk about fewer file notes being made, when you talk about diaries being destroyed, one wonders to what extent this will limit the accuracy with which history can be told in the future of these times.

ANDREW PODGER: I wonder that myself from time to time, Kerry. I think it's interesting that in so many scandals or major issues over the last few years, the failure to have proper record keeping keeps on being mentioned, whether it be by the Auditor General, or by the Palmer report, or whoever, keep on saying we've got a problem about record keeping. My fear is that the problem with record keeping will continue while there is this concern within the place of not giving access and not keeping the records for fear that this might be politically difficult.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You say, quote, "There must be strong suspicion that partisan interests are often the main consideration in frustrating FOI requests rather than the public interest."


There is more of interest in the interview about the duty of public servants to act in the public interest, and how the infamous 'children overboard' incident a few years ago exhibited a failure by politicians and public servants to follow due process.

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