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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pro-active publication of information a good move, but we could lift the game.

The Government's Freedom of Information Amendment (Reform) Bill 2009 - PDF will among many other things, impose an obligation on each Federal government agency to develop a plan, and to pro-actively publish on the web a range of information about what it does and how it does it, plus information that is relied upon in making decisions that affect members of the public.

While there is more detail in Schedule 2 Clause 8 than the current Part II of the FOI Act on what is to be published, the only really new aspects are the publication of information routinely provided to Parliament, and information routinely released in response to FOI applications. The agency may publish other information (8(3)), and the Information Commissioner may issue guidelines (93A). If any are issued, each agency must have regard to them and the objects of the Act-which include increasing discussion, comment and review of Government activities- in developing a plan and publishing information on the web (9A).The agency in conjunction with the Information Commissioner must review the scheme after five-yes five-years (9).

Two quibbles-we need to stiffen up the pro-active publication of information requirement and we should start now.

The UK has been doing this for years. Their Information Commissioner's Model Scheme is mandatory for government agencies and lists classes of information required to be published. I guess our Information Commissioner will publish guidelines even though the Bill stops short of an obligation to do so.The Australian draft categories look light on and if the intention was to leave the detail to the Information Commissioner, why not make the issuance of guidelines a duty not a discretion? Otherwise agencies left to themselves to develop a plan to reflect the objects of the Act will result in a dog's breakfast. Requirements in the UK list of particular relevance are highlighted. I would add a few specifics such as policy research papers, expert reports, grants (Minister Tanner instructed that this happen from January), loans and guarantees for starters, and countries such as Canada include senior officer travel and expenses:

Who we are and what we do.
Organisational information, locations and contacts, constitutional and legal governance.

What we spend and how we spend it.
Financial information relating to projected and actual income and expenditure, tendering, procurement and contracts.

What our priorities are and how we are doing.
Strategy and performance information, plans, assessments, inspections and reviews.

How we make decisions.
Policy proposals and decisions. Decision making processes, internal criteria and procedures, consultations.

Our policies and procedures.
Current written protocols for delivering our functions and responsibilities.

Lists and Registers.
Information held in registers required by law and other lists and registers relating to the functions of the authority.

The Services we Offer.

Advice and guidance, booklets and leaflets, transactions and media releases. A description of the services offered.

And why not get cracking now? Government agencies should be instructed with immediate effect to see what additional information consistent with the Government's intentions can be made available on the web readily accessible using publicly available search engines. At the risk of causing a mass heart attack in Canberra, also how about some pro-active publication of information about those cabinet decisions fit for public consumption, in line with this voluntary non-legislated lead from Queensland?

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