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Friday, October 19, 2012

Resource squeeze=review backlog and other consequences at OAIC

The Senate Estimates session with Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan this week provided further confirmation if it was needed, of the impact resource constraints are having on performance. In answering questions, Professor McMillan made no bones about it:
".... we do not have adequate resources to discharge all the functions, as required by the act, in an efficient way........ In the last five or so months we have implemented different measures that have been successful in reducing the backlog of FOI review cases. However, there is still a large backlog. There is an increase in work coming into the office. Certainly, one of the views that I will be putting during the review of the act in my own office that is forthcoming is that, under the current model in the act with the current funding and the current workload, it is not possible to meet the objectives that the office has set for itself.... In a letter to the Secretary of the department of finance about a year ago, at the time of one of the efficiency dividend rounds I expressed my concern and I drew attention to the fact that the original funding estimate was that the office would have 100 staff, but it was operating at a full-time equivalent level of about 80 staff,,,The office is doing the best it can to cope with the workload, with the staff—and, I might say, with some success. For example, since we have opened, in the space of nearly two years we have received 794 applications for information commissioner review and have resolved over half of those, 402. Equally, we have received 273 complaints just in the FOI area alone and resolved 206. The office is certainly achieving some success. But there is a large backlog that is still unresolved and that is a matter of genuine concern."
To many, review decisions delayed for months amount to review decisions denied.

Of course the OAIC is not alone among information commissioners in finding itself underdone on the resources front. Those exercising their rights are the ones that suffer.

If the OPG membership case advances within government, agencies other than OAIC that also stand to benefit through assistance to achieve their objectives, and/or old moneybags at Finance would need to dig deep to come up with the necessary.

The Hansard extract of the questioning of Professor McMillan on this topic in Estimates follows:


Senator RHIANNON: This is a quote from your annual report:
There is a growing workload across most activities that is not accompanied by any staff increase.
You give some interesting figures:
… a 3 % increase in telephone enquiries to the office; a 47 % increase in written enquiries; and an 11% increase in privacy complaints.
Do you have adequate resources to properly implement your functions?
Prof. McMillan : My view is that at the moment we do not have adequate resources to discharge all the functions, as required by the act, in an efficient way. I did address this issue in the previous estimates round. I said that the area of particular difficulty was information commissioner reviews under the FOI Act because there was less discretionary room for the office to resolve those matters in different ways, but that we would explore different options before reaching any opinion about the funding of the office. In the last five or so months we have implemented different measures that have been successful in reducing the backlog of FO I review cases. However, there is still a large backlog. There is an increase in work coming into the office. Certainly, one of the views that I will be putting during the review of the act in my own office that is forthcoming is that, under the current model in the act with the current funding and the current workload, it is not possible to meet the objectives that the office has set for itself.
Senator RHIANNON: It is quite disappointing to hear those challenges you face because, reflecting back on the answer you gave to an earlier question about the review, 'Yes, it will be done in six months time,' but obviously one could conclude that recommendations being acted on will take quite a long time. Your office sounds as though it could well continue as it is at the present with your staff being on overload. Have you considered putting in any special requests to deal with the current situation, because this is such an important area, with a commitment from the government that it wishes to open up and for departments and minister's offices to be more readily open to the public?
Prof. McMillan : I certainly raised my concerns about the funding of the office to discharge the functions under the legislative model on a number of occasions informally and also more formally in a letter to the Secretary of Finance, which was tabled at an earlier estimates committee round.
Senator RHIANNON: Who did you raise it with? Was it just within Finance or with A-Gs?
Prof McMillan : In a letter to the Secretary of the department of finance about a year ago, at the time of one of the efficiency dividend rounds I expressed my concern and I drew attention to the fact that the original funding estimate was that the office would have 100 staff, but it was operating at a full-time equivalent level of about 80 staff. However, I am well aware that there are tight budgetary restrictions on all agencies and that the only formal avenue open to an agency to seek extra funding is to put forward a new policy proposal. My office has put forward some new policy proposals within the confidential setting of a budgetary round and so it is for government to respond.
The office is doing the best it can to cope with the workload, with the staff—and, I might say, with some success. For example, since we have opened, in the space of nearly two years we have received 794 applications for information commissioner review and have resolved over half of those, 402. Equally, we have received 273 complaints just in the FOI area alone and resolved 206. The office is certainly achieving some success. But there is a large backlog that is still unresolved and that is a matter of genuine concern.
Senator RHIANNON: Have you asked the minister or the department head to support your request for more resources?
Prof McMillan : I have tended to operate within government program requirements for raising these issues. So when an opportunity arises I do, much like in a setting like this when I am asked a question and I give a very frank answer.
Senator RHIANNON: Have they supported you when you have made those requests to Finance?
Prof McMillan : I think everybody in government is constantly reminded of budgetary restrictions and I do not stand alone there.

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