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Monday, May 02, 2011

May Day means Publication D day in Canberra

The new publication provisions of the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act took effect from 1 May so these logos are prominent on many agency websites today, and are linked to the documents now required to be published. Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence are just some that seem to have done a good job and even though others such as Health and Ageing and Immigration and Citizenship don't have the flags flying on the home page, the relevant documents can be found with a little digging. 
The Australian Information Commissioner's guideline  Part 13 - Information Publication Scheme set out what you can expect to find published in the IPS [13.25], and the Commissioner's recommendations. One requirement is to publish information in documents to which the agency routinely gives access in response to FOI requests (s 8 (2)(g)). The requirement is in addition to the publication of a disclosure log.
13.65 (This)..forms part of a new approach to information disclosure, which recognises that information held by government is a national resource, and that agencies should proactively publish information that may be of public interest. The IPS is also designed to lessen the number of individual document requests to agencies. Agencies should therefore take an expansive rather than a narrow view of what information is ‘routinely’ accessed. In particular, agencies should consider whether publishing the information would:
  • promote the objects of the FOI Act 
  • be in the public interest 
  • reduce the likelihood of further requests for the information.
    13.66 Agencies are also required under s 11C to publish a disclosure log, which is a register of information that has been released in response to FOI access requests. While the disclosure log will contain information released by an agency in response to individual requests, an IPS entry is to contain information that is ‘routinely’ released. That is, agencies are required to include in their IPS entry information that has been requested on more than one occasion. The information that was released may not have been identical on each occasion: it may have been revised or updated between requests, or the information may reflect a later development on the same topic. For example, an IPS entry could include statistical information about an agency’s service delivery performance that is regularly requested by the media or other members of the public. Another example would be the minutes of meetings that are regularly sought under the FOI Act.
    13.67 Publication of information in a disclosure log will in some instances satisfy the requirement in s 8(2)(g) to publish that information under the IPS. To avoid dual publication, an agency’s IPS entry may contain a link to the disclosure log and a reference to the information to which the agency has routinely given access. Alternatively, an agency may decide that it is preferable, in complying with s 8(2)(g), for the IPS entry to contain either an extract from the disclosure log or a separate summary of information that is routinely released by the agency in response to FOI requests.
    The Commissioner's Guideline Part 14 - Disclosure log addresses this issue in more detail.

    Regarding the concerns of some in the media (and as reported by Sean Parnell in The Australian today, the media coalition Australia's Right to Know) that the posting of material in a disclosure log at the same time or well ahead of the stipulated maximum time of 10 working days could result in a journalist applicant losing exclusivity, the guideline leaves the matter in the hands of agencies. Options flagged in the draft-updating the log on a particular day each week or fortnight, or negotiating the date of publication- have been toned down and Rick Snell's suggestion of something stronger didn't make the cut. Glad to see some recognition of the inequitable situation of an applicant who has paid often significant charges to gain access will see the same information made available on the agency website to others at around the same time, free of charge. Although urging an agency to "consider reducing or waiving charges" where there is simultaneous release is hardly stern stuff.

    14.23 It is open to an agency or minister to publish information on a disclosure log earlier than the period of ten days stipulated in s 11C(6). Independently of the FOI Act an agency or minister may (subject to applicable secrecy provisions) publish information at any time and by any method. The FOI Act does not erode that discretion. It is therefore open to an agency or minister to publish information that is to be provided to an FOI applicant at the same time that access is provided. This is consistent with the principle of equal public access rather than exclusive individual access, which is inherent in the disclosure log mechanism and the IPS.
    14.24 On the other hand, the Commissioner is aware that FOI works more smoothly and effectively if there is cooperation and trust between agencies and FOI applicants. This is important when the need arises to discuss the scope of a request or to agree upon an extension of time to process a request. There is a risk that a dispute about the date of disclosure on a particular occasion will flow over and create an unhealthy climate for efficient FOI processing in the future.
    14.25 Agencies and ministers are encouraged to consider this issue and to decide upon an appropriate approach to publishing information in their disclosure log.It is advisable that each agency and minister adopts a guiding principle or practice as to when accessed information will be published under s 11C, so that applicants know of that practice in advance and that they will be treated similarly to other applicants. Further, if an agency or minister decides to provide access to the FOI applicant as at the same time it publishes information in its disclosure log, the agency or minister should consider reducing or waiving any charges it may otherwise have imposed under s 29 (see Part 4 of the guidelines).
    I seriously doubt that all this will "destroy the media's appetite for FOI stories" as suggested in Parnell's article.

    But given Treasury's past record on FOI it is remarkable that apparently it has become the leader in speedy publication of selected documents released to an applicant, not even waiting for the 1 May starting date and leaving room for some suspicion about motive.

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