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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tasmania's pro active publication falling short

As pointed out previously, the Tasmanian Right to Know Act provisions concerning proactive publication of information don't take things very far, and the powers conferred on the Ombudsman to require more seem unclear. Apart from information required to be made publicly available by another act or regulation (a required disclosure) whatever else is published essentially seems to be up to each agency. Agency performance three months after commencement of the scheme hardly suggests the brave new world that Attorney General Giddings spoke of in April 2009
“The key proposal is a new approach to accessing information which encourages departments to ‘push’ information into the public arena rather than waiting for a request to ‘pull’ the information from the agency.
The RTI act itself contains no specific required disclosures. A required disclosure only arises if specific information is required to be published by an agency by another act; or disclosure is otherwise required by law or is enforceable under an agreement.

With regard to the other aspect  of pro-active publication, routine disclosures, Guidelines (see 3/10) have been issued by the Tasmanian Ombudsman under under s 49 of the RTI act. A routine disclosure is information that an agency decides may be of interest to the public and is made broadly available, for example published on the web. 

The guidelines list categories of information of this kind that are the same as categories in Queensland and UK publishing schemes:

Our priorities
Strategic and performance information, major projects or initiatives,
plans, assessments and reviews.

Our decisions
Policy proposals and decisions, decision making processes, internal
criteria and procedures, consultations.

Our policies and procedures
Current written protocols for fulfilling the authority’s functions and

Our finances
Information relating to projected and actual income and expenditure,
tendering, procurement and contracts.

Lists and Registers
Information held in registers required by law and other lists and registers relating to the functions of the public authority.

Well and good, if still on the modest side, but no one so far in Australia has gone further. 

In Queensland the RTI act requires that an agency must publish a scheme setting out the classes of information and the terms on which it will make information available and must ensure that its scheme complies with guidelines published by the Premier. As a result publication of those categories of information is mandatory.

In Tasmania the Ombudsman says every agency should have a policy that sets out the detail of information available, but the language used in the guidelines about what might be published contrasts with that used in Queensland (emphasis added):
“Public authorities should generally include the following information in the information which it makes available by way of routine disclosure. The headings used are suggested for the purposes of consistency and clarity.”
The only legislative force behind the guidelines is contained in Section 12 of the RTI act, that relevantly states (emphasis added):
(2) Subject to guidelines issued by the Ombudsman under section 49 , public authorities or Ministers may disclose information to the public as... a required.. or routine disclosure.
3(a) the principal officer ... is to ensure that there are adequate processes in place in the public authority to ensure that there is appropriate active disclosure, routine disclosure or required disclosure of information by the public authority; and
(b) the principal officer .. is to ensure that the processes in place under paragraph (a) comply with the guidelines issued by the Ombudsman under section 49
“Subject to” could mean an agency can’t release information as a routine disclosure if the guidelines say it shouldn’t be disclosed. Or something else. But this formulation doesn't appear to mean an agency must publish what the guidelines stipulate. Hence the Ombudsman’s language in the guidelines document, and the discretion in s12 arising from the use of the word “may” not shall. Subsection (3) and the references to ensuring adequate processes, appropriate routine and required disclosure and that the processes comply with guidelines is also open to interpretation.
From a browse around Tasmanian agency websites, three months on from the commencement of the new act, pro-active publication is very patchy with relatively few agencies so far following the guidelines, or publishing information of broad interest to the public.

It's a gold star for Infrastructure Energy and Resources that not only has a Routine Disclosure Register but includes quite a bit of released information on a range of topics.

As to the rest there isn't much at all, suggesting either they have nothing they judge to be of interest, or more likely, are lagging in responding to what the  the Attorney General explained was at the heart of the reforms.

No star for Education whose RTI page is as minimalist as they come. Tasmania Police  does a little better on the Disclosures page. Forestry Tasmania  has a Release of Information page with all the right headings and some published information.

 Premier and Cabinet and most other departments have a standard RTI page, but all that can be found regarding proactively released information is an invitation to keep looking, or to hunt through Publications. Nothing like the voluntary publication of selected cabinet decisions being posted voluntarily by its Queensland counterpart. 

The Premier and Cabinet model is used by
Marine and Safety Tasmania
At Treasury and Finance the cupboard is bare if you follow the proactive publication link to Statistics and Reports. While over at Justice,  the headings Proactive Disclosure and Routine Disclosure Register appear, but both have the same story:
"Sorry, this section is still under construction, but will be available soon."
Maybe and hopefully, as this suggests, all that is needed to reach new levels of 'push' is more time.

Finally this snippet on Tasmania is from Crikey earlier in the week. Can't vouch for it, and didn't come across the plan in my digital travels:
Glad to see the Tasmanian public sector embracing the new Right to Information Act. From a new information management plan at a large public sector institution: "The new Right to Information Act (RTI) will replace the current FOI Act in July. The RTI Act goal is to promote access by encouraging organisations to be proactive in their release of information. This change allows us to limit RTI exposure by offering information for sale and hence turning the existing FOI overhead into a revenue stream.

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