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Friday, March 17, 2006

FOI: C minus - can do better

The Federal Ombudsman has released a report "Scrutinising government: Administration of the Freedom of Information Act in Australian Government Agencies". The report is another in a long line of reports that identify fundamental problems in the way FOI works.

The Federal Ombudsman Professor John McMillan said that there is an uneven culture of support for FOI among Australian Government agencies. There is still cultural resistance to open government and good FOI administration appears to be of dwindling importance, in some agencies at least.

Part 7 of the report identifies the following deficiencies following the survey of practices in 22 agencies:

  • excessive delay in processing some FOI requests;
  • failure to comply with the publishing requirements of the Act in some cases;
  • lack of consistency in acknowledging requests in a timely fashion;
  • delay in notifying charges and inconsistencies in their application;
  • variable quality in the standard of decision letters, particularly regarding the explanation of exemptions imposed.
The Ombudsman says that given the growing emphasis on the need for consistency across government in service delivery, the same arguments can be applied to FOI administration.

"It is unacceptable that members of the public can encounter quite different standards in FOI administration, depending on the agency they approach...FOI should be afforded the same high priority and strict compliance that is given to other pieces of defining legislation, such as that dealing with financial management."

The Report refers to the problem of the interaction between FOI and privacy obligations, points out that privacy issues are subject to oversight and enforcement by a Privacy Commissioner, but that there is no similar office with matching responsibilities under the FOI Act.

The Ombudsman recommends the Federal Government establish an FOI Commissioner, possibly as a specialised and separately funded unit in his office.

This Report, like the many other federal and state reports it refers to, says that FOI legislation is long overdue for reform. It would be surprising if the problems in administration it identifies aren't replicated in all states and territories. Its call for consistency in the administration of FOI across government can only be achieved federally and in each state and territory if strong leadership, co-ordination and support is provided by a central government agency.

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