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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Staff cutbacks ahead for Australian Information Commissioner

The Office of Australian Information Commissioner had its 20 minutes with Senate Estimates last week, with Privacy Commissioner Pilgrim and Freedom of Information Commissioner Popple doing the honours in the absence of Professor McMillan on leave.

Apart from a couple of questions concerning privacy matters including the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records Bill, the main interest was in the effect of the increased efficiency dividend on the operation of the office next financial year. Commissioner Pilgrim told the committee that as a result the office will need to find "savings" of $300,000 a year which will have to be delivered through staff cuts to the current 80 ASL - as flagged in this post last November.

He said Professor McMillan had written to the secretaries of finance and deregulation and attorney general's raising some of the potential impacts, including the effect on capacity to deal with the increasing number of complaints and undertake investigation of matters that emerge, and comparing the situation with that of courts and tribunals including the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that had been exempted from the requirement.

The Q and A on this topic follows:

Mr Pilgrim : The with a couple of key areas that are impacting on the office in terms of the overall budget outlook. They are areas that include the steady increase in the office's case workload; the issue that the office has had a different treatment to some of the other tribunals—and we have some similar functions to those tribunals that have been exempt from the efficiency dividend; and some specific costs that the office is incurring, such as the unexpected high cost of administering the new Information Advisory Committee, which is an advisory committee set up under the statute to provide advice to the Information Commissioner on policy issues relating to the handling of government-held information. Also, as we have touched on, there is the potential impact of the increase on our staffing levels and work output and a subsequent reduction in the office's capital budget. Those are the general areas. 

Senator Boyce: From your report, in relation to the questions that Senator McKenzie just asked, you are getting an increase in FOI requests because of the very accelerating development of the internet and in other ways. Your work in the cybersafety space and in privacy related to computers is increasing all the time. Is that correct?
Mr Pilgrim : There are two issues there. I might let Dr Popple answer the issues relating to the increase in the workload in FOI. But certainly in the privacy side of our jurisdiction we are seeing increases in most of the contact we have with the community. We have increasing complaint numbers coming in, we are having increasing numbers of investigations that I open of my own volition as a result of data breaches and also, clearly, there is a growing need for us to be able to provide advice to the broader community on issues relating to the use of the online environment. Certainly there is overall an increase in activity in the privacy area, and much of that is being driven by technology...

Dr Popple : Perhaps I can add that in relation to the FOI case workload it is not so much an increase in relation to the office because of course the office was created with a new FOI workload...When the office was established, on 1 November 2010, one of the significant changes was that we would perform a function called the IC review, the Information Commissioner review, of decisions made under the FOI Act. We also deal with complaints made to us under the FOI Act—that is, complaints about actions taken under the FOI Act—which would previously have been dealt with by the Ombudsman. We also have a function in relation to extensions of time under the act. Our workload, if you like, was brand-new when the office started. There were obviously some estimates of the likely level of those activities. Some of them involved some guesswork and the point about the workload is that we are finding it difficult to maintain the appropriate levels of activity in that space.

Senator Boyce: So you are having difficulty with your current levels of staffing. Is that what you are saying?
Dr Popple : I am not talking about the staffing. I am talking about the way the act has been structured. For example, an IC review application comes to us. We have hundreds of those every year and what we have to do under the act to deal with those requires a certain level of work. We are finding it difficult to maintain that level of activity.

Senator Boyce; Is there a way of being more efficient in that area?
Dr Popple : We can certainly look at many ways. We have had some success in that. We have increased our throughput in the review area in the last six months, compared to the preceding six months, by almost a factor of three. We are doing that by being as intelligent as we can be about which applications we process and how we process them. We take a conciliatory approach to the IC review applications, which can be time intensive but we have found it has been quite successful—that is, finding agreement between an applicant and an agency or a minister who has made a particular decision. We are looking at ways to further improve that so that we can do what we need to do within the resources we have. 
Senator Boyce: Mr Pilgrim, you mentioned inquiries undertaken at the behest of the OAIC. Are you likely to have a decreased capacity to undertake those inquiries if the efficiency dividend is enforced?
Mr Pilgrim : Certainly our level of activity in all areas of our compliance work, complaints and national investigations, will be impacted on obviously by the number of resources we have. If those resources of available staff go down, then the workload in terms of complaints coming in will not necessarily change. It may impact ultimately on our ability to have reasonable response times on individual complaints. In terms of what we call our national investigations, a lot of those come to us through third-party sources such as the media and the like, so it is hard to anticipate what level they will be at any one time, but there has been a steady increase of those.
Senator Boyce: But they are issues that are seen either because of the amount of anecdotal information you get or because of the seriousness of the breach itself that you feel you need to do something about quickly.
Mr Pilgrim : Certainly. An example of that would have been last year when we saw an international hacking exercise into Sony and we opened an investigation to find out information from Sony here in Australia about the potential impact on Australians. Similarly, there were a number of other high-profile cases such as a couple involving Telstra and Vodafone earlier last year as well. Those sorts of cases can be time-consuming to resolve but can also be unpredictable in terms of how many we will have in a year.

 Senator Boyce: And your ability to do that will be impacted?
Mr Pilgrim : Potentially.


1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:07 pm

    It always amazes me in these sorts of committee proceedings, reluctance by agency heads (or their delegates) to be honest about the effect of staff cuts on activity or output. Words like 'potentially' are safety words intended to reduce the risk of being seen as unable to create new efficiencies or commitment to continuous improvement another mantra.

    Increasing or maintaining staffing levels to maintain efficiencies, where all other possible improvements to processes have been made, is seen as a failure. Why couch these risks in passive language?

    Fact is, reductions in staffing, even with improvements, generally mean a larger workload for existing staff and less efficiency. Yes the departments will save money but they won't be performing a public service and are less able to conform to the legal obligations and principles of open government inherent in the FOI Act.