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Monday, July 14, 2014

Government thinking about FOI changes needs a full airing before, not after decisions

The Fairfax Media report that Cabinet is reviewing/has reviewed Freedom of Information fees and charges, and the recommendations from the Hawke review is not surprising. 

They had to get around sometime to looking at the report to the then Attorney General by Australian Information Commissioner Professor McMillan on charges completed in February 2012, and the Hawke review report completed well over a year ago. 

But both reports, and the Government's thinking about the issues raised deserve a thorough airing that they haven't received to date.

More cost recovery and the search for disincentives to ease the workload are likely the catalysts for action on charges.

Some recommendations ( boosting informal or administrative access) in the McMillan report are sensible improvements, but others such as the flat 40 hour limit on processing time are not. 

There are also issues not addressed in the report that flow from the decision announced in  Budget 2014 to abolish the OAIC.For example, the going rate for a review application to the Government's preferred one tier at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is since 1 July $861, and that's for starters.

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

The claim that FOI costs something close to $50 million a year to administer has been run up the flag without any evidence as to agency efficiency and effectiveness in carrying out FOI functions or any examination of the benefits side of the equation. This at a time when there is much self congratulation about the 'free data' voluntarily released by government agencies that fueled Gov Hack gatherings across the country at the weekend and may deliver big economic and social dividends.

But free access to what the government voluntarily releases and increased charges over and above what can already be hefty imposts for access to the information government isn't pushing out the door will take some explaining.

How much of the FOI administrative costs 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, and gaming the system by putting applicants through the run around, we don't know. Professor McMillan didn't go there nor did Dr Hawke. It's no doubt 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.

As to the Hawke report (pdf), cherry picking the bits that appeal to those in the government shouldn't be on either. Dr Hawke had limited terms of reference, limited time, completed his inquiry apparently without any research or prying into  dark FOI corners, or talking much to anyone at all outside the Parliamentary Triangle. 

Hence his recommendation No 1
"..that a comprehensive review of the FOI Act be undertaken."
And this concluding observation: 
"I believe a complete rewrite of the FOI Act in plain language is now necessary, so that it is readily accessible and easily understood."

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