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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Premier Rees takes the ball- now to run with it.

In the report on his review of the Freedom of Information Act released today, NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour has given Premier Nathan Rees a plan on what should be done in order to deliver on the Premier's commitment last October to change the secrecy culture in government and to turn the "broken" FOI Act on its head. It's a good and comprehensive report, reflecting the general approach taken by the Solomon Review in Queensland. The recommendations show the way forward for more open and transparent government in the modern context of digital records and higher public expectations concerning the right to information.

The report has three key elements - greater proactive disclosure of government information with publication schemes and FOI disclosure logs of information released of broad interest; a new principles-based Open Government Information Act with a stream-lined set of " reasons for refusal" all subject to a public interest test, and containing strong protections for those who make decisions on access; and robust leadership and oversight from an independent information commissioner in the Ombudsman's office charged, amongst other things, with guarding the legislation.

The Premier has responded in a media release with a general commitment to greater transparency, to Cabinet consideration of the report's 88 recommendations, and to introducing the new Open Government Information Bill in "the upcoming session of parliament." Good, but a little short of President Obama's example of how to get the message out there that things were to be done differently from day one. The Premier might have done better by adopting some or all of the suggested policy and management changes to get the ball rolling now [1.6], and giving someone very high up in the system some very public accountability for finalising the details for the proposed new legislative framework within a specified but short timeline. Some muscle, clout and capacity to knock heads together will be necessary as the 152 page report leaves room for argument and bureaucratic infighting about the details. Just one - the suggestion for consideration that the Information Commissioner should take over as privacy overseer as well. Others are the recommended review of NSW secrecy laws, and resolving which agencies should continue to enjoy a partial blanket exemption for information about particular government functions.Get the picture?

Some notable recommendations are for the houses of parliament (an Australian first) and any private body contracted to carry out public functions to be included in the scope of the act; the option of direct recourse to external review without the need to first seek internal review; the Administrative Decisions Tribunal to retain determinative review powers; automatic contract disclosure obligations to extend to State-Owned Corporations and local councils; tighter definition of "cabinet documents"; offence provisions for a person placing undue pressure on a decision- maker or wilfully failing to comply by destroying or concealing records; 20 working day time period for processing; no changes to the fees and charges that remain the same as 1989; access to personal information through privacy legislation not the OGI Act; and local councils will be pleased at the recommended repeal of Section 12(6) of the LGA.

The report [3.6] confirms that officers at working level contend with ministers and CEOs who would not countenance pro-active disclosure of documents regardless of the sensibility of such a move; and [3.6.5] that special arrangements apply to the handling and internal reporting on "contentious applications"- defined as "you know one when you see one", with the common characteristic of potential bad press or embarrassment for an agency minister or the Government.

Just two of many mind-sets that need to be addressed as the culture-change train moves forward. I detect a few others in some of the submissions to the review from state government agencies.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:11 pm

    I think that if we don’t see any real change soon I’ll just move to a State, or even a country, where access to information held by the government is freely available. The sky hasn’t fallen down in such open and transparent jurisdictions.

    Rees is too busy pretending to do something about the so-called “Global Financial Crisis” and watching out for his own back to worry about Freedom of Information. Oh what a sorry state of affairs we have here.