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Friday, December 21, 2012

Inside a Victorian FOI training room

Fiona Hudson of the Herald Sun came away from this freedom of information conference in Melbourne convinced that the start position in FOI processing is the search for a relevant exemption. I don't know if this is a fair assessment shared by others who were there - I wasn't.

Hypotheticals like the case of the fake ferry involving complex facts are a useful teaching aid. As long as the context and lead in is a strong message that the start position is that the applicant has a right to ask, and the agency must release what is requested unless there are good reasons why not based on a fair reading of the exemptions- reasons that will withstand scrutiny not just plucked out ot the air.

The reference to a "quick and dirty" decision that can be tidied up if and when the applicant seeks review that left Hudson agog is indicative of a tendency to game the system. Just how widespread this is in Victoria and elsewhere we just don't know. But it strikes a familiar chord
While the documents were fictitious, the response from the 40 or so people in the room - many of them FOI officers or legal advisers for councils or state government agencies - was all too real.They took to the task of suppressing the information with alarming zeal.
I had spent the day alongside them learning about recent changes to Victoria's FOI regime at a Leo Cussen Centre For Law conference on November 30 - the eve of the amendments taking effect.
Feeling a little like a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, I'd handed over $520 and signed up under my real name. A tag revealed who I was and where I worked, but no one seemed to be bothered about curtailing their comments.
The lectures were helpful, but the real value of the day was the insight into the minds of the people who handle the dozens of applications for public information that Victorians file every day to government, councils and agencies.
Some presenters were at pains to reinforce that the FOI Act gives members of the Victorian public rights of access to official documents and to remind those in the room that the public deserved timely, consistent and complete responses to their FOI requests.
I cheered inwardly as one officer urged others to be open, active, helpful, efficient, collaborative and to think in the public interest.
But comments and questions from some other presenters and attendees left me agog. One, for example, bluntly admitted a tendency existed in some agencies to deliver "quick and dirty decisions", which could be "tidied up" if the applicant sought an internal reviews.

Does anyone know how the first month went for the Victorian Freedom of Information Commissioner?

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