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Friday, September 07, 2012

NSW Attorney General champions the cause

The Closing Keynote Speech by NSW Attorney General Greg Smith at the Creating Open Government Conference in Sydney on 21 August, entitled "The value of freedom of information", was more philosophical, comprehensive and fulsome in support than you get from your average attorney general or most other ministers for that matter.

I don't think we've heard the likes from the senior ranks of the front bench in NSW since the then reforming premier Nathan Rees was saying in 2008-09: "Transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of good government. The people of New South Wales should be given as much information as possible about the activities of the Government."

This for example from Attorney General Smith:
The ability to access information is hugely significant for a functioning democracy. It provides a basis for many democratic goods. It allows a platform from which every citizen can participate equally. It facilitates trust between citizens and government. It builds knowledge. It empowers people to make decisions.
And despite the fact it's been true for two years, a message that hasn't often been up there in ministerial lights:
The third value I want to highlight today is perhaps the most important – recognising the public’s right to know. In particular, freedom of information is placed ahead of certain political concerns. GIPA expressly forbids public servants from taking potential government embarrassment into account when deciding whether or not to release information. Decisions of public servants to release (or withhold) information are not subject to ministerial approval. It is an offence to deliberately make decisions in contravention of the legislation, or knowingly conceal, destroy or alter information, because this information is considered a public good. Destruction of public information is considered as serious today as the waste of taxpayer resources in any other sense. This follows a general trend in administrative law, such as the right to reasons behind government decisions in the federal Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act. These developments stand for the principle that people have a right to know about government action, so they can respond to it as they see fit. The public interest comes first, and in most circumstances, the public interest favours the public’s right to know.
NSW public servants, particularly at the very senior level, probably can't recall being told by a minister that FOI is not only the law, it's good for you:
Freedom of information is not just good for citizens, it is good for governments. The possibility that information will be requested leads to a range of positive outcomes for government administration. Firstly, it improves efficiency. When records may be requested, there is a strong imperative to manage them more carefully, so that they can be quickly accessed if they are requested. Moreover, when individuals are able to access and correct their information, they enhance government’s understanding of their population, and the government’s ability to deliver services is boosted. The World Economic Forum has argued that the efficient use of personal data will become a major industry in the next century. They believe streamlined, effectively used personal information will be as valuable as oil. Governments should therefore view this new climate of open government as an exciting opportunity. Many jurisdictions which have introduced freedom of information legislation have found that records which are now better kept are able to be used to assess the impact of programs, share knowledge within departments and even to save money. They also have the benefit of ensuring that proper processes are followed. When government records are amenable to review, governments and their agencies are more likely to be compliant. As I mentioned earlier, GIPA also establishes criminal penalties for people seeking to interfere with the integrity of information in an attempt to prevent its disclosure. It is clear that GIPA should be understood as a resource, not just for the general public, but for the government. It can make their services better, more efficient, and more informed. This is a very significant benefit.
The only quibbles-I knew you were waiting-
  • the Attorney General along with the Premier overeggs the significance of Goal 31 of the State Plan NSW 2021, welcome as it is as a high profile commitment to improve government transparency. But one of two targets in Goal 31 is (emphasis added): "Full compliance with the mandatory proactive release requirements under the Government Information Public Access Act (GIPA)." Given these requirements are hardly earth shattering and have been mandatory since 2009, that's a pretty modest aim for 2021;
  • the Attorney General's acknowledgement of a new age "where people expect their government to interact with them in new ways. Information is not only freer, but easier to share and engage with" needs action at home in his department and at other NSW agencies where making a formal application under the GIPA act involves a process held over from another age entirely. Fill in a form, put it in an envelope with a cheque or money order ( no kidding) and wait till we're in touch doesn't sound new information age to me.

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