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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

NSW GIPA down to the nitty gritty

With the 1 July start date for the NSW Government Information (Public Access) Act looming, the Office of Information Commissioner has released guidelines on a contentious issue that has raised concerns in the local government sector, and publicised a regulation that covers some important issues relevant to all agencies. Details and a few comments follow.

The Guideline for local councils provides relief from the obligation under the act to publish on the internet as part of the "open access " publication requirement, the register of interests of councillors and designated members of the staff.The returns will remain available for inspection at a council, as they have been for years. (Given the detailed information that must be included in the returns about the individual, family members and others, its a sensible decision to not require this to be up on the web, available to all and part of the world's collection of knowledge. For mine, I would have still required internet publication of something more appropriate for the web. Queensland  requires a council to publish extracts from the register of gifts, hospitality benefits and membership of organisations, like this at  Gold Coast City Council -  Mayor and Councillors register of interest. There is nothing to prevent a NSW Council going down this path voluntarily, a process authorised by the act - any starters? 

The GIPA Regulation covers:

Mandatory Publication on the internet:
Former Premier Nathan Rees directed ministers to put media releases on the web, and the cost and purpose of overseas travel. Under the Regulation, both become open access information. (Those outside NSW might not appreciate that left to their own devices during the Carr and Iemma administrations, ministers regarded this as unnecessary. Under GIPA a minister has the same open access information publication obligations as an agency, although not required to adopt a publication guide.) The Regulation provides for the Minister to publish required information on a website maintained by a Government Department for which the Minister is responsible.
 
In addition to information specified in the act an agency will be required to  publish (a) a list of the Department’s major assets, other than land holdings, appropriately classified and highlighting major acquisitions during the previous financial year, (b) the total number and total value of properties disposed of by the Department during the previous financial year, (c) the Department’s guarantee of service (if any), (d) the Department’s code of conduct (if any).
( Good, but a missed opportunity here, so far, to  pick up on the Queensland lead to require much more. The GIPA mandatory publication requirements are relatively weak, with regulation the only way to extend them as the Information Commissioner can issue guidelines but not extend beyond he legislated categories. NSW should move towards continuous disclosure of information now required to be published once a year in the annual report, such as senior management travel, and financial and performance data, and service delivery reports. And add to that grants over a certain amount, the gift register, policy research and statistical reports. Again nothing to stop an agency voluntarily embracing these ideas-anyone?)

Reduced charges
An agency is required to reduce, by 50%, the processing charge payable under the Act for dealing with an access application if the applicant provides evidence that the applicant: (a) is the holder of a Pensioner Concession card issued by the Commonwealth that is in force, or (b) is a full-time student, or (c) is a non-profit organisation (including a person applying for or on behalf of a non-profit organisation).
(Good for full time students and non-profits - any and all apparently. Hopefully there will be guidance forthcoming about the discount where the information applied for is of special benefit to the public generally.) 

Reporting   
An agency will still have to report on FOI for the year ending 30 June 2010, and publish the 30 June Statement and Summary of Affairs but not  the latter if it adopts its publication guide by 30 July. Reporting requirements on GIPA are set out in Clause 7 and Schedule 2. (Good, but missed the chance to require a report on steps taken to increase transparency, address cultural change issues, and the plan and specific initiatives for the year ahead.)

Several bodies are declared to be an agency for the purpose of the act and various bodies are to be taken as part of a specified government department. 



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