Search This Blog

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Victorian CEOs responsible for FOI basics-will it make a difference?

The Victorian Information Commissioner in accordance with Section 6U of the FOI act has issued Professional Standards for government agencies The standards, a legislative instrument, came into effect from 2 December.

Section 6W(1) of the FOI Act states the principal officer of an agency, and any officer or employee of the agency concerned in the operation of the FOI Act, must comply with the standards.(The new standards don't apply to ministers who would be subject to any standards issued-none so far- by the Premier.)

The responsibilities include (emphasis added)

1.1 An agency must consider whether a document in its possession, that is requested under the Act, can properly be provided to an applicant outside the Act.
1.3 A principal officer must ensure information statements published in accordance with Part II of the Act are available on their agency’s internet site, where one exists.
8.1 An authorised officer must not be directed to make a particular decision under the Act, when properly exercising their statutory decision making power.
9.1 A principal officer must ensure their agency has the necessary resources and procedures in place to be able to meet their agency’s statutory obligations under the Act, including: (a) being sufficiently resourced to receive and process requests, as and when required, within the required statutory time;
(b) the necessary software or systems to enable officers to process requests;
(c) internal policies to enable officers to carry out their functions across the agency; and
(d) anything else reasonably necessary for the agency to carry out its statutory obligations in an effective and efficient manner.

 9.2 A principal officer must ensure, or must be actively working towards ensuring, all officers who are responsible for responding to requests have the appropriate skills and training to perform their responsibilities.
9.4 A principal officer must ensure all officers are informed about the agency’s statutory obligations under the Act.
9.5 A principal officer must ensure all officers are aware they have a duty to assist and cooperate with officers who process requests under the Act.

Putting the CEO in the frame with responsibilities of the kind articulated in 9.1-9.5 is a welcome development.

But an admonition and nothing more that decision makers are not to be pushed around (8.1) highlights the fact that the Victorian FOI act does not include offence provisions of the kind enacted in other jurisdictions (the Commonwealth a notable exception):
NSW  (SS 116-120-acting unlawfully, directing unlawful action, improperly influencing decision, unlawful access, concealing or destroying government information,-with maximum penalty $11,000)
Queensland (Chapter 5, part 2)
Tasmania  (S 50)
Western Australia (Section 110)
Northern Territory (SS 145-147)
ACT (SS 89-94)
(An offence provision (new section 49A) is included in this draft bill available for public comment at present in South Australia.)

While on the statute book, in some cases for many years, I'm not aware of prosecutions anywhere.

The very existence of offence provisions however is likely some help in keeping things on the straight and narrow.

In one reported instance, the NSW Information Commissioner, acting on a referral from ICAC in 2016, conducted an investigation  (Pdf), concluding individuals in this case should not be referred to the DPP or the Attorney General for a decision to prosecute over destruction of documents.

The only tool in the Victorian commissioner's toolbox is potential name and shame.

Victoria legislation is also at the weak end of a weak spectrum in terms of commissioner clout when it comes to 'guidance' for agencies on the exercise of their FOI functions.

The Commissioner has issued Practice Notes that "provide detailed guidance on how the Freedom of Information Act 1982 should be administered and how the Professional Standards should be interpreted." However while it is put forward by OVIC as best practice there is nothing in the act that requires agencies to comply.

It's not a lot better elsewhere where in some jurisdictions an agency must 'have regard' to guidance issued by the commissioner. For example Section 93A of the Commonwealth act  empowers the Australian Information Commissioner to issue guidance and requires Australian Government ministers and agencies to 'have regard' to the guidelines when performing a function or exercising a power under the FOI Act generally and specifically in relation to:
  • the Information Publication Scheme (s 9A(b)) (see Part 13 of these Guidelines)
  • in working out whether access to a conditionally exempt  (document) would, on balance be contrary to the public interest (s 11B(5)) (see Part 6 of these Guidelines)
  • in making a decision on a request for access to a document of an agency or an official document of a minister (s 15(5A)) (see Part 3 of these Guidelines)
'Have regard to' probably means can't be ignored or must be considered but it doesn't mean followed.

Note in passing:
No one here has gone as far as India where the Right to Information Act requires each agency to designate a Public Information Officer who carries some personal responsibility for compliance. Section 20 of the Act provides that where, in the course of deciding a complaint or appeal the Information Commission finds that a PIO has failed to provide access (without reasonable cause) or "malafidely" denied a request, knowingly gave incorrect or misleading information, destroyed information, or obstructed furnishing information, a penalty of 250 rupees (about $A5) per day may be imposed with a cap of 25,000 rupees.)

No comments:

Post a Comment