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Monday, August 08, 2011

Queenslanders know about FOI, but that's about it

In a welcome first in Australia as far as I'm aware the Queensland Information Commissioner Julie Kinross has published reports on surveys conducted last year on public awareness of rights to information, and public sector attitudes, as foreshadowed in her report last month on two years of experience with the Right to Information and Information Privacy acts. The survey results establish a benchmark against which change can be measured. Other jurisdictions should be doing something similar. Public awareness in a general sense is there in Queensland, but use of the act is terribly low. Public servants however mostly think changes have had a positive impact on their agency- and that's a good thing, even if there is a long way to go with the general public.

 Public Awareness
 Queenslanders surveyed in a telephone (landline) survey of 1200 adults conducted by the Office of Economic and Statistical Research (OESR) Office of Government Statistician in June and July 2010 were very aware of the concept of the right to information -79% responded in the affirmative when asked "Have you heard of freedom of information before?" (Of course this response also reflects to an unknown degree (the question apparently wasn't asked) of awareness as a result of the existence of the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1988 as well as the Queensland act of 1991.) But only 29.9% had heard of the successor act, the Right to Information Act that commenced in 2009. Of these, over three-quarters either did not know anything about the legislation (27.5%), or could not tell the interviewer what they did know (50.5%).

The survey results showed that only four per cent of Queensland adults had made a written request for information since July 2009. Because of the small number not much can be made of the responses. The most commonly requested information was information about the respondent (66.0%) or information associated with the conduct of a business (19.6%). Information was most commonly requested from State Government departments (49.1%). Of the 34.9% of respondents who indicated they requested information from other bodies, some listed Federal Government agencies, and the ombudsman

Around one-third (31.9%) had heard of the Information Privacy Act 2009. Of these, 26.3% did not know anything about the legislation and 45.3% could not tell the interviewer what they did know about the legislation.

The commissioner concludes "that more work is required to increase public awareness and understanding of the RTI reforms." One issue no one appears to have looked at there or elsewhere is whether requests categorised as personal are mainly requests for information held about the applicant, or for information about a matter in which the applicant has a personal involvement. If the latter we might just take just a touch more comfort about the state of democracy than the incredibly low level of citizen experience in use of the RTI act suggests.

Public Sector culture
This survey was conducted electronically with 8,658 participants invited and 2,840 responding between June and August 2010. According to the survey report almost four in 10 responses to the core attitudinal questions (38.3%) elicited a response of 'Don't know'. "Across the 20 questions this proportion ranged from 23.1% to 51.2%. Judging from comments made at the end of the questionnaire, this very high result has come about because many respondents:
· were not aware of RTI or IP reforms;
· worked in jobs or agencies less affected by RTI or IP; or
· were new to their agencies and could not answer some questions – especially those that required knowledge of the agency before the introduction of the new Acts."
Excluding those that answered ‘Don’t know’, four in five (80.7%) public sector employees agreed that RTI and IP reforms have had a positive impact on their agency. Over three quarters agreed that the agency now publishes information as a matter of course and has employed new strategies, particularly new technologies, to make information publicly available. The commissioner concluded that  the responses to the survey indicate that agencies have made a good start on the reforms and public servants are committed to the principles behind the reform process."The positive attitude expressed by public servants in general in this survey is encouraging for the success of these ongoing implementation efforts."

On average, across all 20 statements (excluding ‘Dont know’) public sector employees expressed positive responses 68.3 per cent of the time. For only two statements did negative responses outnumber positive:
· Dealing with RTI and IP causes additional costs to agency operations (71.2% agreed); and
· Dealing with RTI and IP is a strain on staffing resources (55.1% agreed).

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