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Monday, January 14, 2008

Big stick approach to making FOI work

It's well established that more than a reasonable 'access to information' law is necessary to make Freedom of Information work in practice. A whole range of other issues concerning culture, processing requests, costs, and rights of review also need to be addressed. Incentives may also have a place in this.

There is also scope for a bit of stick, something clearly recognised by the information commissioners in the UK.

The Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion, was in New Zealand late last year at an international conference. In this interview with the New Zealand Herald Dunion commented about his approach:
"Dunion was aware public authorities, and particularly central government, wanted him to regard using his enforcement powers as a last resort. Fat chance."That's entirely the wrong way to go about it. I'm not an ex-civil servant. My background is as a campaigner and a troublemaker. I felt the appropriate way to go about things was to be quite firm, quite antiseptic about what was required of the authorities. And yes, we know the authorities are now second-guessing what will happen if they get into my clutches. I think that's pretty good."
And his counterpart in London, Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner for England and Wales, has started the year with a warning that public organisations that fail to fully comply with Freedom of Information requirements from here on will face legal action:
'Those who know they need to get their act together will be hearing from us,' Thomas told The Observer. 'We've had to neglect some of our work in this area because all of our work has gone into complaint handling, but we can ultimately serve enforcement notices and we'd like to be more effective in targeting those public authorities who need a mixture of persuasion and a stick. Watch this space.'

Thomas said there was a need for more central and local government departments to be 'proactive' in releasing information and that this would be another area his office would be investigating in the new year".
In most Australian jurisdictions where we have a body responsible for making FOI work, it doesn't have powers to undertake enforcement action where it finds significant systemic failings.

Something else our policy gurus should be contemplating.

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