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Monday, November 14, 2011

Fees and charges for FOI access

The Australian and NSW information commissioners both have discussion papers out for comment in connection with current reviews of charges for (Commonwealth) FOI and fees and charges for (NSW) GIPA access applications. The Commonwealth abolished application fees from 1 November 2010, and with some exceptions retains the charge regime unchanged for many years. NSW in essence retained the application fee ($30) and charges at the level set in 1989.

The OAIC paper reflects the Minister's terms of reference and provides comprehensive background and comparative information. Some might see the discussion being framed to some extent as a close examination of the case for an increase in charges and by how much. The first points as they appear in the Executive Summary are all about cost and revenue:
  • The scale of charges set in the Freedom of Information (Charges) Regulations 1982 (the Charges Regulations) is not subject to indexation and has not increased since November 1986.
  • Between the commencement of the FOI Act on 1 December 1982 and 30 June 2011, Australian Government agencies have reported a total cost of $498,364,739 to process the 906,639 FOI requests received during that period. The majority of requests are for documents containing personal information: in 2010–11, requests for personal information accounted for 82.63% of all requests.
  • Since 1997–98, the cost of administering the FOI Act has steadily increased. However, the total amount of fees and charges collected has consistently been less than 5% of the yearly cost of administering the FOI Act, ranging from 0.33 % (1982–83) to 4.91% (1994–95) with the yearly average at approximately 2%.
  • The volume of charges collected has decreased significantly from 78.72% of the charges notified in 1991–92 to 9.60% in 2009–10.
The closing date for comment is 21 November. Professor McMillan will be conducting public and agency consultations.

The focus of the NSW Consultation Paper is "on learning how government agencies apply the fees and charges provisions in practice, whether they consider the provisions to be working effectively, and inviting suggestions for improvement, keeping in mind the objects of the GIPA Act." The OIC has released a separate survey for members of the public, the media and non-government agencies.

I don't see a reference in the paper to the Premier's pre-election commitment (among others) to abolish application fees. Submissions close 31 December 2012.

Both reviews hopefully will look at  related matters such as whether the cost of dealing with requests by an individual for his/her personal information-a key element of privacy law- should be counted by agencies as an FOI cost. And other issues such as
  • 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 cost/ benefit of maintaining or in the Commonwealth's case reimposing an application fee and abolishing charges, following a Tasmanian lead,

  • ways to reduce cost through 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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