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Monday, July 09, 2012

Information commissioners by name, and nature

The Office of Information Commissioner Queensland has recently revamped the website, drawing attention to:
  • A user-centric layout with three primary content sections: Online services, Information for, and Information about
  • Dedicated pages for information rights practitioners, public sector employees, community members, media and students/researcher
  • Improved site searching options
  • Access to annotated legislation to provide critical or explanatory notes relevant to information rights
  • Quick links for popular resources and new decisions
  • Automated email form to submit a question to OIC
  • A friendly design for mobile device users.
"To improve our service, we have collated and organised in one online location, our research tools and information resources, case law and decisions from Queensland and other jurisdictions."

Sure to be useful for those who dig in these ditches.

As are the recently published 16 pages of FAQs and Answers from the Office of Australian Information Commissioner. Aimed primarily at those involved in dealing with Freedom of Information in government agencies, they won't come as a surprise to most. Pointing out that text messages and social media such as instant messaging (IM) that support the business of an agency fall within the definition of ‘document’ might give rise to a collective groan across Canberra. 

That FAQ and A and some others caught the eye:

What should an agency do if a contractor will not comply with their contractual obligation to provide access to documents?
Contractors who do not comply with such measures will be in breach of their contract. Agencies should seek legal advice on options available to them. See Part 2 of the Guidelines and Documents held by government contractors: Agency obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 1982.

Can an agency refuse a request for access to a document if they have not received it from a contractor?
Yes. An agency can refuse a request for access if they have taken contractual measures to ensure they receive a document from a contractor and have taken all reasonable steps to ensure they receive the document, but have not received the document from a contractor. See s 24A(2) of the FOI Act and Part 8 of the Guidelines.
Does an emailed FOI request meet the requirements of the FOI Act if it is not sent to the agency’s ‘specified address’ but to another agency email address (such as an individual staff member)?
An FOI request may be emailed to an electronic address specified by the agency. If an agency has specified an email address (such as, a request sent to another email address should be transferred to the appropriate area of the agency. The time of receipt of the application will be when the request is received at the correct address. See s 15(2A)(c) of the FOI Act.

What happens if an agency sends an applicant an acknowledgment letter and the FOI request does not meet the Act’s formal requirements? Does the processing period run or does the ‘clock stop’?
The processing period only commences on the day after a request that meets the requirements of the FOI Act is received. Agencies must help the applicant to make a request that complies with the formal requirements of the FOI Act. See s 15 of the FOI Act and Part 3 of the Guidelines.
How far should an agency search for a document?
The scope of the search required depends on the nature of the request and the information that is available. Agencies are encouraged as a matter of good administrative practice to contact the applicant to discuss the request and provide an explanation of steps taken to locate the document. See Part 3 of the Guidelines.

Does an agency need to search back up computer systems when processing an FOI request?
Not usually. Whether a search of a back up system is necessary will depend on the circumstances of the request. See Part 3 of the Guidelines.
Can text messages and social media posts be accessed under the FOI Act?
Yes. Text messages and social media such as instant messaging (IM) that support the business of an agency fall within the definition of ‘document’. See Part 3 of the Guidelines and Guide to the Freedom of Information Act 1982.
When is an FOI request ‘complex or voluminous’?
This will be determined on a case by case basis. Factors that are not relevant are issues that are not connected to the request itself, including an agency’s heavy workload, competing priorities and ongoing resource limitations. See s 15AB of the FOI Act and Agency Resource 13.
Should an agency consult anyone else before releasing a document?
Yes, in certain circumstances. Consultation may be required for certain types of documents: where documents affect Commonwealth-State relations (s 26A) or Norfolk Island intergovernmental relations (s 26AA), are business documents (s 27) or are documents affecting another person's privacy (s 27A).
Even when there is no specific requirement to consult, the FOI Act does not preclude consultation between agencies. If it appears another agency has an interest in a document, consult that agency to make sure you have as much information as possible to enable you to make the correct or preferable decision. The processing time is not extended for this consultation. See Part 3 of the Guidelines.
Are agencies obliged to give applicants information in the form they request?
Generally yes. An applicant who requests access to a document in a particular form has a right to be given access in that form. However, access in that form may be refused if it is not reasonable or possible. In such cases, access should be given in another form. See s 20 of the FOI Act and Part 8 of the Guidelines.

(Comment-I'm aware many applications for data seek access in digital searchable format.)

Do documents (listed in the Disclosure Log) need to be available in full text or is it possible to provide a link or contact information?
The Information Commissioner recommends that agencies and ministers publish the information in full on their websites. The FOI Act says that agencies must publish information on their websites by:
. making it available for download, or
.publishing links to other webpages where the information can be found, or
. publishing details of how the information may be obtained.
See s 11C(3) of the FOI Act and Part 14 of the Guidelines.

For how long does an agency need to make the information available?
The FOI Act does not require information attached or referred to in an agency’s disclosure log to be made available indefinitely. When conducting routine maintenance or updating a website an agency may decide to withdraw some content and make the information available in another form, for example, on request. See Part 14 of the Guidelines.

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