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Monday, November 05, 2012

What's 30 bucks?

All that's standing between government agencies in NSW and more requests for information than they can handle?

A couple of comments received following that posting last week about the NSW GIPA act included one from a journalist with a lot of FOI experience to the effect that scrapping the $30 application fee for GIPA requests would be a huge mistake in NSW on the basis of Commonwealth experience:
FOI units get inundated with every single ill-considered thought bubble application from nuff-nuffs, political crackpots and Opposition staffers demanding “all documents relating to…”. The end result is a choked, overloaded FOI system where the objective of the FOI unit is simply to rid itself of its growing stockpile applications. With Federal FOI requests, I repeatedly find a lack of thoroughness in the searches and responses. The $30 fee is a sensible – and hardly expensive – hurdle that make applicants stop and think about their request for a bit. There are not endless resources in the public sector."
There is plenty of room for debate about fees and charges that goes beyond what and who is a nuff-nuff, and what constitutes an "ill considered thought bubble" although we might find some common ground on the latter, including some requests by journalists that seem to fall into this category.

And of course the NSW fee isn't unreasonable, given it is the same now as it was when first set in 1989. Adjusting for inflation, that $30 would be be around $56 today. (The more significant issue is the barrier that charges can constitute to the exercise of access to information rights.)

As to Commonwealth experience, applications for non-personal information under the Commonwealth act are up since application fees were abolished and other minor changes made to the charges regime in 2010. However at around 5000 in the year to June across the entire government spectrum, pathetically low are the words that immediately come to mind. But it is up around 16% on the previous year. And it's true some agencies that have never been bothered much by FOI have had significant increases in FOI activity.

Submissions from government agencies to the review of charges by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan- an inquiry now hand-balled to Dr Hawke with a "find how to reduce costs" plea - were as dark and gloomy as my journalist correspondent about what had happened within government agencies during the first year of the new charge arrangements. Lack of resources and presumably some cutbacks given the belt-tightening underway was and remains a legitimate complaint. 

However as I commented at the time:
 Some give the impression that dealing with an increased number of "non-personal" information access requests is a nuisance and diverts resources from the "real work" of advising and assisting government to develop policies and to manage programs to implement them. Amid those grumbles there is little acknowledgement that information access itself is a service, with citizen rights and agency obligations mandated by law, backed by policies including the Declaration of Open Government that give new prominence to accountability and transparency. All for the stated purposes of enhancing representative democracy through increased public participation in government, encouraging scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of government activities, and to recognise that government information is a national resource. Not to mention that Parliament intended that functions and powers set out in the FOI act are to be performed and exercised, as far as possible, to facilitate and promote public access to information, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost. (Sound familiar?-2010 FOI act amended objects, s3)The changes to charges and abolition of all application fees were conscious government decisions, taken in part to mitigate to a degree the cost barrier to use of the act. As Defence, and Agriculture Fisheries and Forests also point out in submissions, the administrative cost of processing $30 application fees far exceeded the return.The "not fair, applications are on the rise" tone in some submissions suggests the long anticipated culture change has a long way to run. As has public awareness of FOI, and public engagement in the affairs of government. Heaven forbid, even more use of the act could be in prospect.
 Research and evidence about cost, scope for efficiencies, and the impact of fees and charges on the exercise of rights to information would help the discussion in NSW, Canberra and elsewhere. Particularly experience in Tasmania where they retain a small application fee but have abolished all other charges. Floodgates?

In any event, I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of the O'Farrell government acting as it promised prior to the election by now supporting the Robertson bill to abolish the GIPA application fee.


  1. Anonymous7:42 pm

    Glad to have discovered this blog!

    My anecdotal evidence seems to suggest a correlation between a culture that supports citizens rights to information and efficiency. Which, if true, would suggest that the defence of "over-load" is more a problem about agency management than frivolous claims.

    When an un-cooperative agency spends time putting up barriers to information it generates firstly the work involved in doing so and secondly the work of managing appeals and reviews. This means that had the information just been made available in the first place the workload for the agency would have been lower.

    On the other hand, a different agency with an internal culture strongly appreciative of FOI can process an application and release the information relatively quickly.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Nice post. Though I am curious as to what you compared the 5000 FOI requests to for "pathetically low" to spring to mind?

  3. Thanks for the comments. Sionee I think it was because I'd just read this article from Global Integrity about a comparative study of use of FOI in seven countries, and done some mental arithmetic. Even if we count all FOIs including applications for personal information, 25000 requests in a population of 21 million would have us way down below any of these seven. Of course we should throw in the state stats as well to get a proper handle on useage. And acknowkledge changes such as publication and informal access. But as suggested in this article, also note that “promotional measures […] are aspects of FOI legislation often missed but as important as access rights.”