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Monday, August 12, 2013

The searcher for government information:easy to get lost

Real easy, as the following exercise illustrates.

In taking a closer look at Queensland in preparation for tomorrow's Open Government Policy Forum, and prompted by the opportunity recently to read a yet to be published research paper (Correction: as a result of a referral through) Scotland's FOI champion David Goldberg, I googled "Queensland How to access government information."

Top of the results list is the Right to Information-formerly Freedom of Information page with helpful information about next steps for the general inquirer, including a central portal for the publication schemes and disclosure logs for 20 government departments, and a link to a central site where RTI applications can be lodged to any of the same agencies online.

Impressive. Even though no mention there of published Queensland data sets available here.

I'm not aware of any other Australian jurisdiction that has such a website. For all the talk about transparency, open government, and citizen centric approaches, John Mary or Nguyen Citizen would soon find digging around with a simple query like this is not for the faint hearted.

Below is what you get with a "How to access government information"search elsewhere. 

It's Queensland by a country mile on the basis of this comparison.

One other point of interest that may have some effect on the even more important results and outcomes: the Queensland list of RTI contacts for the 20 departments variously describes the designation of the relevant unit responsible as Right to Information Services, Information Rights Unit etc. Only one, the Information Release, Legal and Administrative Law Branch of the Department of Education Training and Employment includes any reference to a connection with the legal area of the agency. I don't know about where they fit in the broader structure. But it's a contrast with most of the scene elsewhere where the applicant will find Legal close to whoever they are dealing with in the FOI/RTI process. 

Does it - should it - make a difference? I have a gut feel it does, but it's a suitable research topic for someone out there.

The results of my searches using the name highlighted and the words "how to access government information":

Federal Government: Top of the list, the Australian Government gateway which takes you to myGov. The Office of Australian Information Commissioner is sixth on the results page. No central portal for disclosure logs (the Hawke review report includes a recommendation) or for lodging FOI applications on line. Data sets available here take some digging.

NSW. The Premier's Department is three of the top four listings, the Information and Privacy Commission the other. None of these provide anything useful on the 'how to' front.. A couple of clicks on the IPC website will get you a rundown on aspects of the Government Information Public Access Act - an unfamiliar title to just about everyone. There is no central GIPA application site or a central disclosure log site. In fact many NSW government agencies still only accept snail mail applications. The Google first page of results doesn't list Service NSW Gateway to the NSW Government or OpenGov NSW (front page links to the 'must read' Government gazette and annual reports!) or DataNSW.

Victoria.  Top listing, the Freedom of Information homepage with a link to a central FOI application site. Third on the Google search results (second is Transport Victoria) is the somewhat helpful official Victorian Government website, fourth the eGov Resource Centre with plenty of information about policy and plans but nothing to help find what you might be after now. Victoria is yet to embrace the disclosure log idea-or other 21st century FOI thinking.

So is South Australia as is evident from the 'How to..' search. No central application portal there of course with SA Police still asking you to toddle off to the Police station to lodge your FOI application.

Tasmania is a hodge podge. A separate search for "Tasmania disclosure log" identifies only one Tasmanian government agency, Premier's, on the front page of search results. As to the rest they're no doubt out there somewhere.

For Western Australia, four of the six links at the top of the search results are to sites providing information about disability services-nothing wrong with that if that is what you are after. The Government gateway linked to this site may help you but no sign of FOI, disclosure logs (not required there either) and the only reference to data sets is this site with some spatial data.

ACT Government: the Government Information Portal comes up seventh in the results, for some reason behind six NSW government agencies. But it isn't this useful site with links to published data sets and a central portal for some information released in response to an FOI application.

Northern Territory: pretty messy. Top of the list is an Information Act application form. General information hard to find.

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