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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Agencies not necessarily best at publishing what the public wants

One aspect of the Federal Government's Freedom of Information Reform (Amendment) Bill that will get some attention in my submission today is the pro-active publication scheme. The Bill itself doesn't take things far beyond the current requirements (except for wider publication of some information released to an applicant in response to an application, and information about statutory appointments). While an agency must have regard to the objects of the Act (a plus) and any guidelines issued, the  Information Commissioner has no duty to issue any, or powers to require an agency to publish particular types of information. The Explanatory Memorandum explains this by saying agencies are the best judges of what information they hold that should be published.

In my view more specificity is required, either in the Act, or by imposing on the Information Commissioner a duty to provide guidance (its a discretionary power at present) and to make some publication requirements mandatory. What happens when agencies are left to their own devices is the current situation that most regard as unsatisfactory. The recent initiative boosted along by the Gov 2.0 Task Force to encourage voluntary publication of data sets is also instructive. Have a look at the current catalogue  at  the home of Australian government public information data sets and the  offerings so far. Some appear useful and of potential interest to particular groups, but how much is new, hasn't been published previously, or is relevant to a wider audience (exceptions for where to find a public toilet around the country or a barbie in the ACT) remains to be seen.

Melanie Sloan in the Huffington Post (thanks to a reader for the lead) has just written about the results of President Obama's directive to Federal agencies in December to publish three"high value" data sets within 45 days, released last Friday. She similarly finds a mixed bag with many data sets obscure, old, or already publicly available:
"So what accounts for the widely varying importance of the posted data sets? Undoubtedly it stems from the failure of the (Office of Government Data) to provide any definition or standards for what constitutes a high-value data set. As with other aspects of the administration's transparency initiatives, the OGD is long on aspirations and short on specific benchmarks to measure success. If the administration wants to move beyond rhetoric, however, it must do more than espouse agency transparency. It is time for the White House to get specific and tell agencies precisely what they need to do to become transparent and accountable."
So should we. Back to the submission.

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