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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Despite open government reforms is FOI proving to be a lawyers' picnic ?

Gemma Jones in News Limited papers writes that documents released in response to a Freedom of Information application reveal that the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has spent $268,000 this year on lawyers for assistance in processing FOI applications and making decisions. One matter involved payment to a prominent law firm of $77,000 since January. These costs presumably are in addition to internal administrative costs including time of in-house lawyers. Battles over access to documents concerning the national broadband network probably occupied a prominent place in this. 

The DBCDE has some history of leaving nothing unsaid or poorly argued in setting out the case for an FOI refusal.This from a post  in March 2009 on a knockback for access to the Panel of Experts Report on the National Broadband Network that provided rare public access to detailed reasons for decision:
Thanks to Tech Wired the 17-pagenotice of determination is here. While you might think it goes on a bit, this is as good an example as you will find of a highly professional fully compliant, dot every i, cross every t determination. And why the real costs of the time involved in FOI administration are what they are. With all due respect to Nikki Vajrabukka, Acting Assistant Secretary, Corporate and Coordination Branch, this doesn't look like a document you sit down and reel off the top of the head, without some very skilled input. One pleasing factor was that the public interest factors considered and relied upon to claim the internal working document exemption [40-45] are much more compelling and realistic than those old, tired highly questionable claims of harm to frankness and candour or public confusion- a hopeful sign that the professionals within government have finally binned them?
But at $268,000 this year in direct legal costs and counting, this sort of professionalism doesn't come cheap, with the question hanging why external lawyers are needed to this degree in any event.

In the year to 30 June 2010 Federal government agencies reported they spent $3.8 million on solicitors fees in dealing with FOI matters. In the era since the commencement of reforms to make government more open, it would be ironic if some lawyers may be enjoying an even greater picnic.

Thinking the DBCDE documents released would be of interest I went to the Disclosure Log- but empty as this taxpayer's wallet at this stage.

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