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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review of Commonwealth FOI fees and charges

WikiMedia Commons Dodo
Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information Brendan O’Connor's Media Release announcing the promised review of Freedom of Information fees and charges by Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan was going along nicely until this paragraph:
“In light of the current number of large, complex and resource-intensive FOI   requests being processed by the Government, it is appropriate for Professor McMillan’s review to consider the financial costs to the taxpayer of processing these requests.” 
There followed the reminder that in 2009-2010 there were "more than 21,000 FOI requests to the federal government, costing more than $27 million to process."

Some-not me of course-might see these references to cost as presage to discussion of  more cost recovery.

The Minister said the review to be undertaken in consultation with users of FOI and other stakeholders, Australian Government agencies and the newly-appointed Information Advisory Committee and due to report by 31 January 2012:
"will consider the role of fees and charges in FOI, the impact on applicants and agencies of the current charging regime, and options for changes. Professor McMillan will also consider whether the decision to impose charges, or the level or nature of charges imposed, should vary according to the nature of the request or the applicant."
Terms of Reference wide enough I'm sure to cover how, if at all, fees and charges impact on the achievement of the objects of the act (s 3) that include access to information in order to promote representative democracy through increased public participation in Government processes. On the basis of the statistics cited by the Minister, there were only 2730 requests other than personal information requests in 2009-2010, so for 22 million of us, hardly anything to get excited about. Given public expectations in the Information Age charges may be a significant barrier to public participation.The current system scored a markdown for us in the RTI Index, where the measure for cost was the cost of reproduction of requested information.

As more than 87 per cent of the requests were for personal information you have to wonder whether those costs should count as an FOI cost in any event. Access to information about yourself is an element of privacy rights.Weren't we to move at some point to a system where personal information applications were dealt with under privacy legislation?
"Any other related matter" in the terms of reference should allow a look at how cost to the taxpayer might be reduced. For example
  • whether the administrative cost of keeping track of time and managing a complex array of charges is justified by the return or other reasons
  • the costs/ benefits of reinstating application fees and abolishing charges, following the Tasmanian lead,
  • cost reduction possibilities from more pro-active disclosure.
  • efficiencies in processing including through more and better the use of technology, and
  • how poor/overly defensive decision making that results in high cost review applications can be improved.

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