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Friday, November 30, 2007

NSW Premier's faith in FOI improvement misplaced

Two months ago, the Independent Member for Sydney, Clover Moore, asked the Premier about poor FOI performance in NSW, the Government's reaction to repeated calls by the Ombudsman for review of the NSW Freedom of Information Act, and what the Government planned to do to increase the release of information.

A month ago, the Premier responded by saying that the head of his department would meet the Ombudsman to discuss concerns about the Act. He continued:
"The recent release of the new FOI Manual is a further step in helping to improve decision making in this area.... The manual ensures that all agencies are fully aware of their obligations and, particularly in relation to exemptions, that they apply the Act".
I'm sure the Premier wouldn't consciously mislead the Parliament, but in making this claim he is way off the mark.

The manual, work on which commenced nine years ago, and which is the first guidance issued by the NSW Government on the interpretation and application of the Act in 13 years, will in many respects add to confusion and uncertainty. Rather than improve decision making, it is likely to have the opposite effect.

Even more disappointing than the lack of clear guidance particularly on key exemptions in the Act, is the Government's failure to provide leadership on the importance of FOI and open government principles. The Premier distributed the manual with a memorandum (M2007-11) to ministers asking them to pass it on to staff and agencies in their portfolios.

That was about it - not a word that positions FOI as an important issue in the broader context of accountability and transparency in the conduct of public functions. Public servants are good at reading between the lines. This will be interpreted as 'wink, wink', nothings changed. Saying nothing about these matters conveys an important message from the highest level of government.

The manual (all 376 pages - see FOI Manual 2007) and my comments (having spent close to 20 years working around these issues) are contained in this review .

If the Premier sees the manual as the only required step forward in NSW he is way out of line with the new Federal Government and Labor colleagues in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia, where significant change is in the air.

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