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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ombudsman urges FOI action not just at Immigration

The Commonwealth Ombudsman's report on delay by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) in dealing with requests under the Freedom of Information Act draws attention to the fact that prompt access by an individual to personal information held by a government agency is critical for many applicants affected by government decisions, and that DIAC, faced continually with a large number of applications(last year almost 15000), failed at senior management level to recognise and act on systemic problems in the way it made information available generally, and in processing applications. A major problem highlighted by the investigation was that requests for information which could be dealt with aside from the FOI Act were being dealt with as FOI requests.

These type of problems are not unique to DIAC and Professor McMillan concluded with these obsevations to the broader public sector audience:
"4.4 Two messages lie behind (DIAC's) problems and (the proposed) reforms. The first is that FOI can impose complex demands upon an agency and require a concerted and high level response from the agency. Shortly stated, FOI is a core business activity of government agencies that will only be undertaken adequately if appropriate managerial attention and resourcing is directed to the task.
4.5 The second message is that this commitment to high quality FOI administration requires cultural as well as managerial devotion. Access to government information is both a statutory right and an essential requirement for administrative transparency and open government. As examples given in this report illustrate, members of the public often need timely information in order to enjoy other rights or make other claims against government."
And seven months after the election of a government with a specific commitment to create a new position to provide leadership and guidance on FOI, the Ombudsman also felt it necessary remind the Government of his oft repeated view that this is part of the answer to the problem that FOI has not lived up to its promise.
"4.6 The issues raised in this report tie into a broader debate now occurring in and outside government about the reform of FOI laws and processes in Australia. A prominent issue in that debate is the proposal to create an FOI or Information Commissioner to oversight FOI administration across government and to focus attention on the whole-of-government responsibility to comply with minimum legislated standards for openness. The findings of this investigation lend support to that proposal, whether the oversight function is created as a separate office or a designated function of the Ombudsman. Briefly stated, the Freedom of Information Act is a special law that can present difficult challenges for government. There is a need for a better understanding across government of the commitment and steps that can be taken to ensure that timely access to government information becomes a respected right and not a hollow ideal."
This sounds like a polite message to Special Minister of State Faulkner to get on with it.Sean Parnell in The Australian quoted the Minister describing the DIAC delays as "a serious matter that the Government will bear in mind as it moves forward with its FOI reforms. The Government is progressing FOI reforms and stands by its commitment to fix the system"

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