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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lessons for Australia from UK Information Commissioner experience

Federal Labor, in opposition, announced its intention (among other Freedom of Information reforms) to establish an Information Commissioner with powers to undertake review of FOI determinations, to replace review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

This will be a positive development.

However in this report the problems associated with a similar scheme in the United Kingdom are evident - the existing backlog of appeals lodged with the Information Commissioner is now so long it would take until March 2010 to clear. The average request takes 18 months.

"Journalists have complained that the huge time lag in dealing with FOI appeals means that public authorities can effectively kick embarrassing requests into the long grass, by refusing them safe in the knowledge that the Commissioner won't compel them to act for at least a year to 18 months".

The answer to this type of problem isn't more resources to speed up the review process, although the Information Commissioner probably has a reasonable claim for more staff.

As mentioned previously the Scottish and UK Commissioners see the need for tough talk and strong action.

Agencies who are a bit blase about FOI decisions should be exposed to something more than a slap on the wrist. Instances where poor decisions are taken, particularly in agencies where this is a systemic problem need a bit of stick. But the answer also lies in more effort to ensure that FOI works better in the first place and the right decision is taken the first time, in order to reduce unnecessary appeals.

Hopefully those in Canberra tossing the Information Commissioner model around will see the need for proper staffing and the relevance of the UK (and other) experience.

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