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Friday, August 22, 2008

Two takes on climate of disclosure

The Age today ( and the Australian Financial Review yesterday) have seized on comments earlier this week by Australian Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs on Freedom of Information at a Walkley Foundation Conference in Canberra, with both reports focusing almost exclusively on her remarks about the media. This from The Age:

"...while she supported the principle of disclosure,(Ms Briggs said) sensationalised reporting of documents obtained under freedom-of-information laws was not helping a national campaign by journalists and their employers to free up the system.

"The media should accept some responsibility for the current state of FoI," Ms Briggs told a Canberra conference.

"The extensive use of FoI editors has contributed significantly to the current impasse by flooding government with deliberate fishing expeditions and requests designed specifically to embarrass ministers," the commissioner said. "I'd like to see more sensible - and less sensationalised - reporting of the information released within an accurate context."

I was the other speaker in the session "The climate of disclosure:the public service and the right to know" so can tell you first hand that she made it clear she sees benefit from maximum disclosure.In addition to a serve at the media she also had some important things to say about improving transparency through more routine disclosure of policy research and other initiatives that would represent significant and positive change in access generally, and FOI performance in particular.The full text of her remarks is here

My comments at the conference were along the lines that the climate of disclosure within the public service, historically, has been on the cold to cool side, not assisted by over 100 secrecy and confidentiality laws, and an enduring culture of secrecy in some agencies that has not been adequately addressed by successive governments over the years. While there have been claims the climate is warming and a couple of examples, there is also evidence that old habits of excessive secrecy continue. These are my notes for those interested.

On the vexed question of access to policy advice, and responsible reporting, that the Commissioner raised, this is from a post here in early June following the leak of the views of four departments on a proposal that went to cabinet:
"We should be entitled to know through designated procedures(not leaks at the whim of someone in the system) what government knows unless some harm to essential public interests would result. Governments need thinking space to weigh advice and make a decision, then choose to act on the advice of this expert or that, or not at all, and to explain itself. However a government serious about transparency should not be trying to limit what we know about the views of its experts by locking the papers up for 30 years when they will be released into open access. Disclosure of the assessments of government advisers, no matter how this occurs, should not endanger the prospect of frank and candid advice in future. The Government should be demanding this sort of advice from its public servants on an ongoing basis."

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