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Thursday, September 17, 2009

FOI in Victoria- first the bad, then some good news.

The Victorian Ombudsman in his Annual Report released yesterday (Chapter 2 pages 38-49) says complaints to his Office about Freedom of Information matters were up from 125 to 178; and reports on avoidable errors in processing requests, backlogs becoming increasingly common, and problems with the consultation process. Concern about the culture surrounding FOI practices in some areas of the public sector, included the following (with case studies in support):
"Often agencies act against the intention of the FOI Act by restricting, rather than facilitating the release of information.

I do see good examples in the Victorian public sector of an open culture in handling FOI requests. However, the inclination in some agencies is to use the FOI Act to prevent the release of documents, rather than to use it according to its intended purpose: as a means to allow scrutiny of an open and transparent government.

Poor attitudes towards FOI requests and a limited understanding of FOI laws underscore these cultural problems. Although my office continues to promote greater openness and transparency, some agencies remain reluctant to fully disclose matters of public interest, even after receiving guidance.

The need for change in departmental culture regarding granting access to information is essential and is just as important as the right to obtain actual access under the FOI Act. Accordingly, I will be examining these matters closely and reporting on them during the forthcoming year."
The Chapter also includes comments and recommendations about water authorities and open meetings, and tender processes particularly in public hospitals.

Attorney General Rob Hulls announced on Tuesday:
"All departments twice yearly would publish documents commonly sought under Freedom of Information requests in five key areas. The information to be released includes: Details of consultancies of less than $100,000; Cabcharge expenditure; Departmental lists of accounts; Costs of departmental executive officer conferences and planning seminars; and Executive officer salary bonuses (annual release). Mr Hulls said all departments would be encouraged to identify additional categories of information suitable for proactive publication. He said all departments also would publish on their websites information about publications, major reviews and overseas visits undertaken by public servants. The publication of this information would coincide with the release of annual reports."
The Age reports also that Mr Hulls said the Government had proposed revised FOI guidelines to the Ombudsman that would increase accountability

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