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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Queensland reform snapshot from a little while back

What was said nine months ago is almost ancient history I know. But having just caught up with evidence given by Queensland Information Commissioner Julie Kinross to the ACT Standing Committee on Justice and Safety on 29 October last year, about implementation of the Queensland Right to Information Act, I thought these bits were still worth sharing.

FOI Unit-more conciege than gatekeeper
Typical FOI/RTI staffer?
Ms Kinross: FOI units were frequently used by departments as a filter, so any request for information would just be sent straight to the FOI unit, so it became an immediate barrier for people to get information. Then the FOI unit basically saw itself as the gatekeeper, that they would stop. This is one of the things that Solomon was critical about, this culture of stopping the release of information. Nevertheless, within that they came to a settlement about what the agency would tolerate around release of information. So at one level they did understand what could be released and what could not be released in the context of their own agency. Now, really what has happened is that the idea that the FOI unit is a gatekeeper has changed. It has not changed in practice yet, but the concept has changed. It is more like a concierge; it is there to help people get information out of the agency.

The second part of that is that the FOI unit was often left alone to make those decisions, uninformed by the program area. That role, that definition of the concept of its role, also needs to change. Sure, it is there to do the administration, but to make good decisions it has to engage with the program area and get proper input from them.

Improved access to information.
Ms Kinross: Three areas stand out for me. One is health information, where sometimes separated parents are refused access to children’s medical records or people are refused access to dead people’s information: your mother has died in hospital and you cannot get access to the medical records. Some of the thinking around that is changing, where the accountability of the health service is given a higher weighting than the protection of the privacy of the deceased person. So there is some change in what information people can get access to there. Again, with communities, kids in care, accessing their old case files, there are also some changes that the agencies are not necessarily comfortable with. My view is that, if you have been in care and the state has intervened and taken away your family relationships, part of understanding your identity and who you are is about understanding who your family is and the only way you can do that is by accessing information.
MS HUNTER: Absolutely.
Ms Kinross: So there are some changes there. Probably the last area where there are some changes in the information people are getting access to is the breaches of regulation. So, in health people previously had difficulties in getting access to, say, the butcher shop that had been busted by the health inspectors numerous times and it was all kept quiet. But really consumers should have the information to decide where they buy their produce from. We get changes in workplace health and safety, where consumers should really understand which business entities are running safe infrastructure for consumers. All of that information has been kept confidential. So there are shifts happening across a range of different program areas in what information consumers and the public can get access to.

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