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Thursday, August 16, 2012

FOI charges remain a barrier to access and a cost to the taxpayer

The Australian reports today on the refusal by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to waive charges for the release under the Freedom of information Act of 80 pages to Senator Abetz concerning appointments to the Levenson media inquiry, on grounds that  the documents would not be of interest to anyone other than "a limited section of the community, namely the media."  A reminder that the complex, resource intensive and time consuming charge regime remains a flaw in the Commonwealth system, even though  application fees have been abolished.

The Australian information Commissioner reported just that in his review released in March: "The charging framework is not easy to administer, the cost of assessing or collecting a charge can be higher than the charge itself, and the scale of charges is outdated and unrealistic," Professor McMillan said.
This report concludes that further change to FOI legislation is needed. A new charges framework could enable the FOI Act to work better in providing public access to government information without impairing the other responsibilities of agencies and ministers....The prevailing theme in all consultation for this report was that the FOI Act is a vital statute that must be supported by government and made to work in an optimal manner. My recommendations for reform are framed in that spirit. I commend them to the Australian Government for close consideration.
Six months on that's the last heard of the reform proposals, in public at least. Professor McMillan did say he was interested in hearing from others, was considering further consultation and possibly a supplementary report to the Attorney General. But in the meantime, apart from a line of applicants frustrated by the charge hurdle in an age where speedy access is the go...

Who knows how much time and cost to the taxpayer continues to be involved in agencies  calculating estimates,keeping track of time, seeking deposits, considering applications for reduction or waiver on financial hardship or public interest grounds, calculating charges and chasing up requests for payment etc, etc? All that before further time and cost absorbing complex guidance on the subject and arguing the toss on matters where the applicant seeks review on grounds a charge has been wrongly assessed or should be reduced or not imposed.

To date, the Office of Australian Information Commissioner has published 20 review decisions in 2012. Ten relate to charges. In three cases-33%- the commissioner set aside the agency decision. 

Many matters don't go to a formal decision so it's not known how large charge issues loom in the overall review workload of the office. But it is clear that time and cost spent on this is too much at every level.

On the "whatever happened" theme:
In NSW, to Premier O'Farrell's commitment while in opposition to abolish application fees? And to the review of fees and charges by the NSW Information Commissioner that kicked off with a consultation paper and a survey in October last year and seems to have dropped off the radar since?

And in Tasmania has anyone had a look at the consequential effects on applicants, and savings in administrative costs as a result of the decision in 2009 to retain a small application fee and abolish other charges?

If access to information law has the worthy public purpose of increasing public participation in government activity, the fees and charges regime, managed at significant cost to the taxpayer, shouldn't block the way.


  1. After 20 years processing FOI and GIPA applications on behalf of the RTA, I would be concerned about a system where there are no or little charges. One way to deal with applications and only charge for those that incur a significant amount of time to process would be to extend the 20 hours free processing from applications for personal information to all applications.
    If it takes more than 20 hours to process an application, then the fees are applied.

  2. Thanks Phillip. Your suggestion is along the lines of the UK scheme. For some reason problems here with charges are more obvious at the Commonwealth level, less so in the states. A review of costs and benefits that have resulted in Tasmania would help the discussion.

  3. Anonymous2:17 pm

    It is not just about fees but about strong records management systems. One of the obligations agencies have is in keeping the records of government, which even the Audit Office continues in many reports to gently chastise various agencies on their failures in this area. With good systems, fees and time expended in processing requests could be greatly minimised. I think the 20 hours benchmark suggested would go a long way in improving FOI. Much of the time the fees and 'diversion of resources' is a convenient excuse with little oversight from an inundated OAIC.