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Monday, March 10, 2014

FOI fees and charges back in the frame?

The issue of FOI fees and charges has been sitting in the in-tray in Canberra waiting to be dusted off again when the time is ripe. And that time might be now given the the National Commission of Audit is reporting on the performance, functions and roles of the Commonwealth government and 'everything' is said to be on the table.

Apart from the occasional leak, intended or otherwise, it seems likely the Government will sit on the report, the interim said to run to 900 pages, pick what it chooses to act upon and release at the same time it makes those announcements in the Budget statements on 14 May.

I doubt Treasury, Finance and others missed the opportunity to run up the flag the claimed high costs associated with Freedom of Information, the increase in use of the act and the relatively small amount of cost recovery in the way of collected charges. All leading almost certainly to suggestions for increased fees and charges, at a minimum along the lines advocated by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan two years ago.

The main concern about any changes is that that no one appears to have looked closely, if at all, at efficiency and effectiveness in the administration of Freedom of Information and how this contributes to cost, or at the benefits side.

The latest ball park for total cost across government of $45.3M in 2012-13, plus an additional $3.1M for the Information Publication Scheme and approximately $5M for OAIC FOI and information policy work.

But to say again
The $45 million represents agency estimates. How much of the cost can be attributed to inefficiency, failure to invest in technology, refusal to make sought after information available promptly and at lower cost without the need for formal applications,gaming the system by putting applicants through the run around, we don't know.  Dr Hawke apparently didn't inquire. Probably the tip of an iceberg but take a look at the pedantic, bureaucratic and no doubt costly to the taxpayer correspondence generated by applications made through Righttoknow.)
(Interesting to see that this post written in February 2012 about agency submissions - grumble, grumble - to the review by Professor McMillan is at the top of the most viewed posts in the sidebar.)

Ideally a detailed examination of FOI processing, resourcing and costs should be undertaken before any changes to the charging regime.

While a case can be made for some of the changes proposed by Professor McMillan, that doesn't extend to his recommendation of a flat 40 hours limit on processing time for any single application. The existing test of 30 odd years standing of a limit based on substantial and unreasonable diversion of resources requires consideration of the nature of the application -something along those lines should stay.

As well, there needs to be something to encourage efficiency and speedy processing, not a de facto reward of "time's up" placed within reach of those who dawdle, obfuscate and are inefficient.

An informed debate before decisions are taken would be more consistent with an interest in broadening participation in government than a decision based on a Commission of Audit report not seen outside government until the decision is taken.

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