Search This Blog

Monday, October 27, 2008

Getting FOI reform in the fast track

At the end of July I made some suggestions for action Senator Faulkner could take to shift things along on the Federal Freedom of Information reform front apart from the commitment to two phase reform sometime down the track. At that time and probably still, Senator Faulkner thought those complaining about slow progress were "ungenerous critics." My list appears to have made not the slightest impression on anyone in Canberra. So no illusions here about influence but what about a list of initiatives NSW Premier Nathan Rees could consider if he wants to keep the ball rolling in his plan to end excessive secrecy in NSW?

Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday kicked things off suggesting the Premier could push agencies to respond positively to Ombudsman recommendations following the investigation of complaints regarding FOI, and provide guidance on what he expects to be disclosed publicly as a matter of routine, starting with the cost of ministerial trips and the cost-benefit analysis of major government spending commitments such as the staging a V8 car race at Sydney Olympic Park. On the first point, the Ombudsman's Annual report reveals 171 positive outcomes from 190 completed investigations in the year to 30 June, so there are a few from last year reluctant to accept the Ombudsman's wisdom. On the second,for starters get up on the web the register of interests of members of parliament, government grants made to organisations to carry out functions on behalf of the government, and inspection reports on food standards in restaurants, schools and hospitals.

As to other possibilities:

Designate someone with standing and clout (with no connection with the dark arts of the past) to act with your authority to turn things on their head in this area, as you explained your intention last week. Ask the Ombudsman to have his review report on your desk promptly, and in any event to let you have a first report on policy and public management issues by 1 January.

Tell Education and Health there is to be no more foot-dragging on the publication of information about performance in the schools and health systems and that NSW is to stand with, not against, Federal ministers in this endeavour.

Issue a policy directive that documents should be released unless there is clear harm to government, individual or business interests. Get rid of all the wishy-washy and in some cases questionable guidance in the Manual issued last year by the Premier's Department that provides a straw to hang onto for those looking for an excuse to knock back a request.

Put some performance measures in place and make it clear performance- particularly timely access- in this area is the responsibility of a senior officer in every agency. As the Ombudsman has pointed out NSW Police appaear to have systemic problems.

Tell agencies that in assessing charges the Government sees a public interest in use of the FOI Act to access documents concerning the conduct of government functions, or that will contribute to debate about matters of public concern, and that charges should not stand in the way of access to these type of documents.

Find out what happened after Morris Iemma acknowledged shortcomings (I use the word loosely) in the disclosure of government contracts on the web, as has been required by law since January 2007, and get things sorted so that local councils are subject to a similar requirement from 1 January 2009.

Check what sort of public money, time and energy is going into defending in the Administrative Decisions Tribunal questionable FOI determinations by agencies to refuse access to documents and convince agencies to pull the plug on those that aren't necessary in a government no longer to be described as the secret state.Ditto regarding any rearguard actions currently in the courts where government agencies are contesting Tribunal decisions.Ditto for complaints to the Ombudsman that haven't yet been investigated.

Go and talk to the next meeting of FOI officers from government agencies who meet in the Parliament House Theatrette on 12 November and tell them your expectations- this group meets every few months and has done so since 1989.It would be a first - none of your predecessors have ever attended a meeting

Whew, all this before getting moving on a new act early in 2009!

Good luck.

No comments:

Post a Comment