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Friday, June 17, 2011

NSW Information Commissioner reports on awareness workshops

Wikimedia Commons Alan Murray-Rust
I commended the NSW Office of Information Commissioner last year for initiatives to raise awareness about changes to the law through the introduction of the Government Information (Public Access) Act and for publishing its review of regional workshops conducted to this end. Those workshops were followed by others aimed at government employees and members of the public in Sydney and surrounds between October 2010 and March 2011, and a second review report has now been published.

The workshops have helped spread the word about change to government employees at state and local level. But the record to date proves, if proof was necessary, that engaging the public on this topic is a challenging task. The second report reveals 12 workshops in metropolitan Sydney were attended by 411 government employees and 104 members of the public- only five saw public attendance in double figures. A 13th workshop, in the Sydney CBD, was a better story-126 government and 64 public attendees. The overall low level of public attendance was much the same as at workshops outside the metropolitan area reviewed in the first report. I commented at the time:
Getting citizens interested in their rights, and participation in government processes is a tough gig, and requires a range of ongoing initiatives. I wonder if government agencies did anything to bring the briefings to the attention of locals? That might have helped spread the word. And whether scheduling sessions for business hours on weekdays necessarily excluded a segment of those who might be interested
There is no commentary in the review report about this aspect of the workshops. The main lesson was the need for more specific and higher order content for an ongoing series of seminars for government employees-a good idea now reflected in plans for a two-hour seminar to be held every two months, due to begin in late July and run into 2012.

As to public awareness it will be a long slow haul I'm afraid. "Roll up during office hours to hear about the Right to Information Act" probably doesn't cut it for many in a busy world, although some especially interested such as librarians, lawyers, journalists, and community activists of all stripes (see below) should be targeted. Websites, mailouts with routine correspondence, brochures etc in government offices can also help.

Information access rights need to be linked to user needs and given a purpose. Agencies should be encouraged to do their bit by seeking input on information needs from users and from stakeholders who don't show up in their statistics, and providing those groups with information about how things have or are improving. They should be inviting stakeholders in to show how more open government can lift public participation and engagement and promote debate and discussion of important issues relevant to the local community, and to health, education, the environment, business etc. And how access, use and reuse of government information can promote community improvement and development, generally and in specific fields. 

And the Information Commissioner's work in this area will never be done either. But encouraging to see that the Office has a Community engagement commitment to "develop, maintain and strengthen relationships with a diverse range of community groups," and someone on board to manage this.

A tick again for the office for publishing the review report.


  1. and what else has she achieved so far!?...12 months on and only a roadshow in the tick ain't good enough. Come on Peter, have you fallen under Deirdre's (or shall I say the failed WA TIO) charms over her old biscuit and tea routine?

  2. Peter Timmins10:38 am

    I don't know Doyle Brady but interest in open government issues in NSW is welcome as is comment and criticism (when deserved) about the state of things. So welcome aboard to Doyle's blog

    Me a sucker for the"biscuit and tea" routine?-two cups of coffee in a year but the biscuit tin has never been opened. I'll leave it to others to judge.

    There is a lot to do in the first 12 months in setting up a new office such as this. Overall it seems to me a fair bit has been accomplished. I'll leave it to the Commissioner to elaborate if she wishes.

    But some of the points Doyle makes about the Office are well taken- only two published review decisions,lack of published information about investigation of agency compliance with publication requirements for example.You could add no information about performance standards for the Office or how agency performance is to be measured, no guidelines on the public interest test, and no published speeches. Recalcitrants and agencies with systemic problems-there have to be some?-have also escaped public attention so far, apart from Macquarie University which some fell got off lightly.

    It is still an open question whether the creation of an independent freedom of information/privacy office separate to the NSW Ombudsman is the best approach. The Premier in opposition maintained combining the two was the way to go but unscrambling things after a year seems premature.

    One weakness apparent in the legislation regardless of where the function sits is that the Commissioner's powers on review are recommmendatory not determinative. What's the batting rate on agency acceptance so far? I'd also give the office more clout regarding the publication requirements of the act.

    As to Doyle's couple of proposed litmus tests, executive remuneration and performance is an annual report requirement, the latter pretty anodyne for sure. See Department of Premier and Cabinet 2009/2010 page 101 for example

    There is no reason why remuneration shouldn't be routinely disclosed apart from this. CEO performance agreements should include open government and other deliverables, and generally should be publicly available although I can see circumstances where disclosure of some content might not be in the interests of delivering efficient and effective public administration. Publication of performance payments and reasons also makes sense.

    Whether we would be best served by full routine public disclosure of performance assessment against performance agreement is another of those questions that can't be answered in the abstract or in a general one size fits all sense. Insisting on it may not produce the performance assessment system or performance results we hope for.

  3. I agree that there is a lot to do setting up a new office in the first 12 months. However, when compared to the performance of other jurisdictions in their first 12 months NSW is certainly lagging behind, particularly on the compliance front. Qld OIC developed a robust compliance plan which they published on their website within the first 6 months of operation.

    The question is, has Deirdre failed to develop any meaningful strategies for her department or that the department intended to promote transparency is selective in disclosing their own information? I certainly couldn't obtain any information in relation to their compliance processes nor any other strategies.

    Excuses such as being the 'new kid on the block' as many of us have heard her iterate in many speeches and staff rotation is getting stale 12 months on(not to mention, if I recall correctly, the additional 4-6 months they had prior to the GIPA Act commencing). All we want to see now are results and action, not more excuses!

  4. Welcome to the open government conversation Doyle Brady! As NSW Information Commissioner and the champion of open government in this state, I welcome robust discussion of my activities and achievements.

    Given my privileged role, it is vital that I am accountable to the Parliament and the people of New South Wales. While our annual report for 2011/2012 will be the most comprehensive way for me to address what’s been happening in the NSW public sector after a year of the GIPA Act, I’ve also done two reports to my Parliamentary oversight committee about the work of my office. The last report at the start of this year gave a snapshot of our first six months of operation. I will provide an updated report to the new committee when it is formed, covering January to June 2011, and this will be published this on the OIC website as part of our open access information.

    As Peter says it has been a busy 12 months since the GIPA Act commenced. My reports to my committee have been one way to demonstrate my priorities and my office’s achievements over that time.

    As Mr Brady correctly observes, at this stage we have only published two review decisions. Not unexpectedly with the commencement of the new legislation, there has been strong interest in accessing government information. The volume of complaints and review requests has been a challenge for our office, but with the recruitment of additional staff, we are well on track to dealing not only with the outstanding reviews, but to begin regular publication of our decisions.

    Much of our work in the past 12 months has been to promote the new legislation to both agencies and the public. GIPA is a very different piece of legislation to FOI, and getting agencies to understand that has been an important message to convey. This is the first step in driving the necessary cultural change required to ensure the Act really achieves its objects. Peter is well known for promoting the fundamental importance of cultural change, and I see it as key to the success of the new regime in this state. That is why we have focused so much on working with NSW government agencies to provide them with the knowledge and resources they need to comply with the legislation. Agencies have received specific advice on what the OIC will seek in compliance reviews, in the form of a compliance checklist – a resource that enables agencies to conduct their own audits to ensure they comply with the GIPA Act.

    The public interest test is of course central to the new proactive regime. We have so far published three guidelines that deal with aspects of this test. Guidelines 1 and 3 specifically assist local councils to apply the public interest test in relation to publication on the internet of personal or sensitive information. We have chosen to take a targeted approach with guidelines to address problems that risk impeding the achievement of the objects of GIPA. In providing guidelines, we want to assist agencies but not to prescribe their decision-making. To this end, we have produced e-learning material for agencies and the public and a fact sheet explaining in general terms how the public interest test works. We have also made a submission to the ADT that may be of interest.

    In the coming 12 months our focus on monitoring agency compliance with the Act will move to centre stage. We will continue reviewing agency websites, publication guides and annual reports to ensure NSW government agencies are meeting their open access information responsibilities, and report on what we find. Easier access to key information is one of the most important public benefits of GIPA, and we will be evaluating and commenting on whether that is being achieved.

    For now, thanks to Peter Timmins, Doyle Brady and others who continue to contribute to vigorous discussion about open government in NSW. I’m always happy to meet with fellow right to information supporters, so any time Mr Brady or anyone else would like to drop into our office for a constructive chat over cup of tea, and perhaps a biscuit, please let me know.