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Monday, February 09, 2009

Some questions arising from Federal Annual FOI Report.

A few other points and queries arising from the Federal Freedom of Information Annual Report 2007-2008 in addition to those made in The Australian last week: that requests were down (25%), delays were up (proportion of applications taking more than three months to process doubled), and the number of instances where documents were released in full fell from 80.6% to 71.4%

"29000 FOI requests across all government agencies- the lowest number since 1991-1992."
No explanations offered for the drop- perhaps more information is being made available from government agencies on-line or without the need for formal FOI processes, as was the case last year with Immigration? Maybe potential applicants have become disheartened by perceptions of cost, delay, and chances of success? Has the Government this year or previously done any research on applicants and the general population to find out about public attitudes awareness and understanding of FOI?

"15% of all applications were for "other" documents- those concerning policy development and government decision-making."
While this is a slight increase on the previous year the low level of applications for documents that go to the heart of government accountability confirms that FOI isn't working as a means of fostering participation in the processes of government. Why- lack of awareness, cost, complexity, time apathy? Do we know the categories of users of FOI and why particular groups (such as the business sector) apparently have always been significantly under-represented?

"406 requests for internal review
(215 in connection with"other" documents)".
Very few of those who don't get everything they ask for contest the decision. However 56% of those who sought internal review had some degree of success.So do quite a few who keep going and seek external review. Of the 125 requests for external review dealt with by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Table 15 says only 25 were affirmed, a very low figure, although no details are given on what happened in the 38 withdrawn cases. The Ombudsman doesn't provide any information on the disposition of the 206 FOI complaints received, so we are in the dark on what happened there. Based on the information available about decisions that get challenged, you have to wonder about the quality of some original decisions that are not challenged?

"The total reported cost attributable to the FOI Act in 2007–08 was $29,474,653, which is an increase of $4,538,475 (or 18%) on the previous year, while total request numbers decreased by 25%. One reason for the increased cost of FOI in 2007–08 is a $2,000,003 (45%) increase in non-labour costs."
Yes but
according to Table 20 the Government spent $4.9million for its own solicitors and legal counsel fees, accounting for $1.6million of the $ 2 million increase.Is anyone watching how much is being spent defending what?

"The average cost per application increased over the 12 month period from $730 to $940."
Why is it so? How much was spent on technology, systems or other initiatives to increase efficiency?

"$672 in total was paid by the Government as costs to a successful applicant"
Presumably paid on the recommendation of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.$672 last year compared to $85000 in the previous year. No other details of the payments this year or last- that $85k sounds interesting. The low amount this year and most years illustrates the very tight criteria (success, financial hardship, no grounds for original decision etc) for such a recommendation by the Tribunal and the Act provides that the Attorney General is not bound to act upon any recommendation.Were there any recommendations for payment that the Attorney General did not accept?

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