In a break with the past the Minister (who doesn't have a separate web presence in his Privacy and Freedom of Information capacity) doesn't appear to have bothered with a media release to accompany the report. His introduction to the report itself is very upbeat about the legislative changes that commenced on 1 November.
|Wikimedia Commons- Korall|
Use of the act
The real test of an FOI regime is its value in facilitating transparency to hold government to account in the broader sense. On this front, the use of the act for access to "other documents" (policy and government decision making) was again low: 2764 applications of the total, half the 5528 received the previous year (Appendix O page 120). "Why is it so" as the good professor used to say? Are government agencies being more open so FOI occupies a smaller space? Are potential applicants browned off by prior experience, or has apathy taken a further turn? Or some other explanation?
As 'increasing public participation in Government processes" is part of the new objects of the act we have a long way to go on this front. (Separately Terry Moran Secretary of PM&C in a recent speech emphasised the need for a culture change within government agencies to put citizens first, and mentioned plans for a Citizen's Survey to "capture citizens’ views on government services, programs and laws." Let's hope questions about interest in government, and access to government information get a run.)
Of the 17141 applications for personal information documents, 11592 (67%) were granted in full, 4490 (26%) granted in part, and 1059 (6%) refused all together. Of the 2442 applications for "other documents" determined, 898 (37%) were granted in full,1130 (46%) in part , 414 (17%) refused and 619 withdrawn (Table 3). No explanation of the last of these- some of course may have baulked at the cost.
Overall applications determined within 30 days were down from 83% the previous year to 79%; those that took 61 to 90 days doubled from 2% to 4.5%; and those over 90 days from 1.8% to 2.6% (Table 7). The figures for other documents were distinctly worse: 1078 of 2442 (44%) took 30 days or less; 248 (10%) took 61-90 days and 183 (7%) over 90 days (Appendix C). The stand out (for the wrong reason) was the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission-27 of 48 applications (56%) took longer than 90 days.(Over 90 days is a broad category-what's the longest outstanding application in each agency might be of interest.)
Fees and charges
(Application fees have been abolished from 1 November. and changes made to the charging regime with all applicants entitled to five hours free decision making time. It would be fascinating to know the cost for all agencies of recording chargeable time, processing requests for waiver and the administrative steps in dealing with payments, and these costs in comparison to the returns.)
The amount paid for applicants' litigation costs: zero, the same as last year (Table 20)-an illustration that getting a payment is "eye of the needle" stuff for applicants even if they succeed in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Agencies spent $188,735 on staff training during the year, a fairly modest amount in the circumstances, and presumably mostly with the Australian Government Solicitors'.
Review of decisions
The statistics show that it often pays to seek review of a determination to refuse access. Of 367 decisions on internal review 157 (42.8%) affirmed the original decision; 57 (15.5%) were granted in full and 153 (41.7%) resulted in some concession by agencies. 110 applications for review were lodged with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It's difficult to know what to make of the applications Dismissed by Consent (five) or Withdrawn (51)-was the applicant satisfied nonetheless?- in Table 15, but five agency decisions were set aside, three varied by consent, and three set aside and 28 varied by decision of the tribunal.
From I November 2010 reporting obligations rest with the Australian Information Commissioner. There is plenty of room for improvement in agency reporting beyond the raw statistics. For starters, whether each has a plan to promote open government, and performance information regarding the achievement of the government's stated objectives; indicators of agency culture and change over time; initiatives taken to publish information of general interest to the community; the extent to which agencies are providing access to information informally; and who-politicians, journalists, NGOs, lawyers and individuals-are using the act.