In what might well be a welcome first, or at least first for a long, long time, Minister Faulkner as the minister responsible for Freedom of Information spoke in Canberra recently to the FOI Practitioners Forum, those government officials who deal with FOI issues everyday. The speech is a good summary of the legislative proposals, and recommended, particularly if you haven't ploughed through the Draft Bill. The Minister also peppered the summary with strong, positive statements:
"Information is.. the lifeblood of democracy. It makes informed commentary, debate and discussion of government policies possible. It lets people know what their government is doing, and why. It is fundamental to openness in government, that cornerstone of government integrity. And achieving more openness in government is the Government’s goal."Minister Faulkner clearly sees legislative change as the first and major step to achieving more openness. But it's still all future tense-things that are to follow once the legislation passes Parliament.
I'm afraid there is no sign yet, in this speech or elsewhere, of innovative thinking about what may emerge from the wonderfully bureaucratic sounding "Information Publication Schemes" that may start to roll out from Federal Government agencies, if all goes well, sometime in 2010.
As to "doing things differently", the Minister is getting closer to spelling out to the public service that the government is serious in its commitment to open government:
"I will be writing to the heads of all agencies seeking their commitment and support in carrying out this objective, as I mentioned when I launched the package last week."And the Minister made it clear to the FOI practitioners that the Government will want their help when the law changes:
"I also seek your support today. Those of you handling or advising on FOI applications have a vital role to play in ensuring that changes in FOI law are carried through to changes in FOI practice. We will be relying on you to ensure that these reforms actually deliver more open and more accountable government. I do know that this will not always be easy. It is often a very difficult job to weigh the competing and complex demands of transparency and confidentiality. I know too that where there is not a clear answer to the issues raised by a FOI request, it will always seem easier and safer to say ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’, to chose caution and withhold the document rather than take what may seem to be a risk and release it. It is our hope that these proposed changes will deliver the statutory structure and the processes to make it easier for you, as the decision makers ‘at the coal-face’ of FOI, to weigh these different factors, and to deliver FOI outcomes that reflect the public interest – and the government’s policies – of openness, transparency, and informed discussion and debate."Meanwhile, back at the farm........