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Monday, January 21, 2008

WA public service work and wage assessments not so secret after all

An important decision (PDF) in Western Australia in December by a specially appointed Acting Information Commissioner, Christopher Shanahan S.C, resulted in a comprehensive victory (after 20 months of trying) for the Civil Service Association and West Australian Newspapers Ltd., and access to a report prepared by Mercer Human Resource Consulting on the grading and remuneration of senior public servants. Mr. Shanahan was called upon to decide the matter because the then Acting Information Commissioner had a direct interest in the matters covered in the report, and some independent assessment was required.

Access to parts of the report had been refused on the grounds that the agency concerned, the Salary and Allowances Tribunal, was outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act; that methodology used by Mercer and detailed in the report was exempt as a trade secret or because disclosure would reveal information that had a commercial value; and that some information about the public servants concerned was covered by the personal information exemption.

The Acting Commissioner found that the Salary and Allowances Tribunal was not a tribunal for the purposes of an exemption for such bodies in the FOI Act - it did not exercise judicial or quasi judicial functions, was not an adjudicative body, and some of its decisions were subject to review and final decision by the government.

Despite claims to the contrary by the Tribunal and Mercer, the Acting Commissioner found that information about Mercer's methodology was not highly confidential and sensitive - in fact most of it was in the public domain, either in other reports published by Mercer or in other ways. As the information was widely known, disclosure could not have the claimed adverse effects.

All but three of the 70 senior public servants concerned, when consulted had no objection to disclosure of information about them including names, position titles, functions and duties, and remuneration. In any event the Acting Commissioner concluded that in the case of the three non consenting officers, the public interest was in disclosure of salary and entitlements, and this outweighed considerations of privacy and confidentiality.

From details contained in the decision, Mercer has the game sown up around the country in providing advice about grading and remuneration for senior public servants. Mr. Shanahan's detailed reasoning (all 79 pages) will provide some useful prompts for anyone seeking similar information from other governments about any similar reports.

Keryn McKinnon writing in The West Australian said that the Tribunal was considering a Supreme Court Appeal, but there is nothing on the Information Commission website so far to indicate an appeal.

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