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Monday, November 23, 2009

Despite the talk, F for Fail on Federal FOI Reform by the end of 2009 (but see correction)

The Prime Minister in his Garran Oration at the Australian Institute of Public Administration National Conference in Brisbane on Friday gave the Australian Public Service a "good but needs to do better assessment," citing the just released KPMG Benchmarking Report as evidence of areas of good and not so good performance. The speech includes many references to the impact of the internet on service delivery and on public expectations across a wide front, and the need for a more outward looking public service prepared to connect and engage with those outside government. On this, the Prime Minister said
"The report also found Australia's public service to be less adept than other nations at incorporating non-government expertise and the views of citizens into its policy development and service design process."

He went on to say:

"This is something that the Government has been addressing since we came to office through measures such as community cabinets, reforms to Freedom of Information laws, the 2020 Summit and the development of a Web 2.0 plan."

Of course it's true "the Government has been addressing since we came to office.... reforms to Freedom of Information laws." But it is also true that most of that consideration has been behind closed doors and that it has little to show for its efforts, other than legislation this year to abolish conclusive certificates. This was promised for 2008, and while a good and welcome move, should have been low-hanging fruit for a government serious about fundamental reform elected in November 2007.

It's also true but unacknowledged in the Prime Minister's speech that his government has failed to deliver on the commitment to introduce into Parliament in 2009, the more substantive FOI reforms canvassed in an Exposure Draft released with fanfare in March, followed by a submissions period that ended in May. The bills as distributed had the new regime , including the Office of Information Commissioner in place by January 2010.(Correction: this "failure" and comment that follows was a premature call- FOI Refom Bills were introduced into Parliament on the last scheduled day of sittings for the House of Representatives on 26 November. Debate was adjourned until next year. See details in this later post.)

Mike Steketee in The Weekend Australian in an account of
the internal workings of bureaucracy in dealing with an FOI application for documents concerning climate change (that sounds distinctly old school and unchanged by all the talk of more open government), concludes (emphasis added)

"The email trail .. demonstrates how readily a bureaucracy is prepared to cut corners, including ignoring legal advice, in order to protect ministers. It makes you wonder how strongly the appetite within the government for FOI reform extends beyond Faulkner, who since has gone on to Defence.The main part of the legislation for the FOI reforms has yet to be introduced into parliament, meaning Faulkner's starting date of January 1 will not be met. It has been delayed because his successor Joe Ludwig still is considering submissions on the draft bill. In August he said that changing the culture of the public service was a work in progress. That may qualify as the understatement of the year."

Still considering submissions? Only 45 were published, and five months have now passed. Maybe there was a rush of late confidential ones? On 6 August the Minister Senator Ludwig said

Having considered the submissions, the Government intends to introduce into Parliament and seek passage of the Bills
This followed previous commitments by his predecessor Senator Faulkner to put legislation before Parliament this year.

Get ready to hear someone in Government say that FOI reform-and the culture change that obviously has yet to start in some places ( see Steketee's story and this from the ABC's Chris Uhlmann)- will be a high priority for next year. On the evidence so far you wouldn't bet on it.

Count this one as F, for fail to deliver on a very clear, very firm commitment. Add several layers of cynicism to an already large pile.

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