In a speech on Wednesday to senior public servants, New Directions: Setting the Agenda on Accountability and Integrity Special Minister of State Faulkner outlined the Rudd Government’s reforms and planned reforms, emphasising how significantly the Government relies upon public service leaders to achieve its objectives in this area.
".., as you know, there is only so much Government can do in changing the way things are done in the APS. We rely on you, on your capacity for vision, on your ability to inspire and motivate those you work with, and especially on your ability to show, through example, the values on which we all depend: impartial professionalism, ethical behaviour, accountability, and of course, frank and fearless responsiveness."
The Minister pointed to the major change
" that in the new Federal Government, for the first time, many integrity and governance functions are brought together under a single Minister – FOI, public service administration, privacy, codes of conduct, the register for lobbyists, transparency, accountability, electoral law, the guidelines and administration of tax-payer funded entitlements, government advertising and the National archives."
On Freedom of Information, the Minister said the planned reforms (still no great detail, or timetable) will both affect and depend on senior public servants, as, as well as structural and legislative change, a shift in culture is required:
"Labor put it on record during the election campaign that we would have a more open approach in government, including a greater willingness to share information with the public through FOI. One of our promises was to abolish conclusive certificates – the trump card removing the power of the AAT and the courts to decide how the FOI laws apply to particular documents, distorting what should be an independent and transparent review process. We also promised to establish a new statutory position of an FOI Commissioner, who would introduce a whole of government approach to FOI, and provide guidance and the opportunity to monitor and review FOI decision-making across government. We are continuing to work towards those goals, along with other reforms to improve FOI processes.
Less straightforward but nevertheless critically important is the task of changing the culture for decision makers charged with the responsibility of determining what documents should be released and what documents should not. I recognise that beyond the straightforward release of personal information, FOI presents a challenge for decision makers. If the material is at all sensitive, it will always be easier to say no and withhold documents than to say yes and release them. The challenge is to get the balance right.
Yes, FOI is burdensome and comes at considerable cost. It involves agency time. But for this government it remains a key part of our commitment to more public processes. Achieving such changes in perspective and culture will require your assistance as senior public servants. As we proceed with our reforms in this area, we will be calling on you again to show leadership, and commitment, to our objectives of greater transparency and openness."