Bureaucratic chess, you might say. But it's a disappointing reversal of the belated recognition then that FOI was more than an administrative law matter. The transfer of the function to the Prime Minister's portfolio and to PM&C (and the assignment of responsibility for a bundle of integrity issues to a senior minister with stature and clout in John Faulkner) put FOI centre-stage in the accountability, good government and democratic practices frameworks. It loosened, in theory at least, the lawyers hold, suggesting a public management prism at the center of government provided the best perspective for consideration of policy and ongoing responsibility for laws concerning information flows between government and the citizenry. Just the sort of thing to fit neatly into the responsibilities of someone with the title Deputy Secretary (Governance) in fact.
You can see these views are widely shared: with FOI at the Commonwealth level back in AGD, it's a full hand for attorney generals/justice departments across the country who now manage the function in all jurisdictions. The Commonwealth brief flirtation with something different followed 20 years of NSW experience where from 1988 FOI was a Premier's Department responsibility. That too changed after the passage of reform laws in 2009.
(Another thought: the same emphasis on the law rather than public management and access to information as a service is reflected in the many agencies at Federal and state level where the FOI function is located in the legal branch. Lawyers should play a role in FOI in the same way they do on a myriad of other issues-when required. Public servants without law degrees give effect to the law all day every day in all sorts of areas without a lawyer at their shoulder. FOI, in most places now with a pro-disclosure element, would be better placed in governance or linked to public affairs.)
This was the Deputy Secretary's explanation for the decision to move the branch to AGD:
"They came to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet principally because the government had made a commitment to do broad reform to freedom of information laws. In the context of that being a significant whole-of-government activity that affects every portfolio, it was thought appropriate that that should be moved to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet while those reforms were undertaken. The reforms to freedom of information have now been completed and are embedded in the implementation stages, and now it is an appropriate time for the implementation function to go back to the Attorney-General's Department."
"The reforms to FOI.. have been completed now, and that was a significant body of work that that branch was doing... It has not been a cut so much as over time priorities shift and staff are either moved around or not replaced as positions fall vacant. So over a period of four years a reduction of two or three people is not unusual in an area with changing priorities.To an outsider the slim staff resources might partly explain the painfully slow action on privacy reform.
Senator Rhiannon: But, considering commitments such as the consultation on a private right of action, shouldn't the government be at least retaining the staffing levels or even supplementing the resources of the branch rather than this cutback? There has been a reduction, whatever the reason.
Ms Leon : Within those existing resources of the branch, the branch has successfully produced a comprehensive discussion paper on the statutory course of action. So the numbers in the branch are adequate to enable them to perform their duties."