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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Queensland Information Commissioner delivers a "could do better" report on publication schemes

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The Queensland Information Commissioner has published this report on desk top audits of 81 agency websites for compliance with publishing requirements of the Right to information Act and the notification principles under the Information Privacy Act, during the period 1 January-31 December 2010. The Commissioner overall is encouraged "by the commitment shown by agencies in implementing publication schemes and disclosure logs" and the general positive approach "to meeting their legislative requirements under the RTI and IP acts." However "(i)mprovement opportunities were noted across all the..agencies reviewed", meaning all could do better and sounding close to a C+; state government agencies are ahead in compliance compared to those in the local government and university sectors; and some unnamed agencies have significant compliance weaknesses.

A surprising fact disclosed in the report is that while the RTI act and Ministerial Guidelines that have mandatory effect require certain information in seven classes to be posted on the web, the "act does not specifically require agencies to publish publication schemes and disclosure logs electronically." They should fix that.

Only two of the 81 agencies, the Department of Education and Training and the University of Southern Queensland, had what could be expected in each of the seven classes of information required to be published to deserve a commendation.The type of information most commonly absent  was information about budgets, tendering procurement and contract information. Ten of 13 departments and all seven universities whose websites were audited didn't comply with the privacy requirement to provide information in on-line RTI forms about the use of collected personal information.

The Commissioner says a tougher approach to compliance generally is coming. This time the 79 agencies that didn't rate a commendation including even the most non-compliant escape mention by name. Publication of names and performance details, good bad and indifferent, is a spur to improved performance in any field.This should be a must next time.

The only media coverage of the report I've seen was The Gold Coast Bulletin (Act's judge and jury says it works fine 9 March-no link available) which took the opportunity to make a few general observations about the RTI act, its implementation, and public sector culture. Comments from Queensland readers welcome:
Despite what may have been the best intentions behind the Act, it remains a maddeningly difficult and time-consuming process for the media to drag information out of government that it, for its own benefit, decides should remain secret. In the experience of this paper, in many instances the OIC is a natural fit in joining state departments in keeping secrets from the public - ironically, because it decides it is in the public's interests to do so. No matter how well-intentioned and well-crafted legislation may be, its success lies in the hands of bureaucrats tasked with implementing the law and it is here that, in the Bulletin's experience, the Act fails to fulfil its promise. When Premier Anna Bligh accepted the 2008 Solomon report into the RTI legislation she referred to the need for a "change of culture" in regard to the supply of information from government, but there is little evidence of that change of culture. The preamble to the RTI Act states that it is fundamental to an open and participatory government that information is provided as a matter of course "unless there are good reasons for not doing so". Until the OIC starts putting public good before the survival of politicians, getting information out of government will continue to be a challenge.

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