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Friday, February 14, 2014

How goes Victoria's FOI review experiment

Victoria charted new Freedom of Information territory in 2012 when it abolished the internal agency review option, allocating the review function for most purposes to the Freedom of Information Commissioner. 

The Rattenbury bill proposes something similar for the ACT.

The 30 day time frame for review decisions by the commissioner's office was commendable but always going to be ambitious unless accompanied by speedy, streamlined access to agency documents the subject of review, and plenty of skilled resources to do the job.

A failure to make a decision within time or agreed extended time (the act provides for extra time with the consent of the applicant) is deemed confirmation of the agency decision (s 49J) and grounds for a review application to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (s 53).

This report today in Herald Sun online about Leader Newspapers’ experience in asking for review of a decision by Ambulance Victoria was prompted by the commissioner seeking two time extensions. The Leader found plenty of support for the proposition that delay is 'completely unacceptable.' Professor Johan Lidberg of Monash University said “The whole point of the commissioner is to speed up the process but that is not working at all.”

The only published information about how it is working out is the Commissioner's Annual Report 2012-13 covering the first seven months of the scheme. The statistics are now eight months old. Things may have got better or worse.

Meeting that 30 day deadline is proving a struggle. Of the 92 review decisions made by the commissioner's office during the period, one third were within the statutory 30 days. 
Applicants agreed to extension of time in 94 reviews and to 121 extensions in total. 

There are no published decisions on the website. Some reviews are no doubt complex and speedy access to the documents in dispute is likely to be an issue in some cases.

The commissioner received 258 review applications in total; 51 were not accepted for one reason or another; 47 were dismissed, 20 after informal resolution and with the consent of the applicant. 

One hundred and ninety review applications were completed. Fifty one decisions (68%) were the same as agency decision, 33 differed in full or in part.

Two agencies feature prominently amid the numbers. Victoria Police, subject to 35 review applications had 20 decisions affirmed, a different decision in 8 cases while 7 applications were dismissed. Worksafe Victoria was the subject of 16 review applications: 8 affirmed, 5 differed and 3 dismissed. 

As to efficiency and effectiveness, the report is not enlightening. Performance measures for the FOI Commissioner's for what they are worth appear only in the Department of Justice Annual Report. The only indicator in the report apart from process numbers is "High" for "Satisfaction with services performed." But nothing about how this was obtained.

There is still plenty of FOI business for VCAT:166 FOI appeals were lodged with VCAT during the period.

The report also contains stats regarding agency experience in dealing with FOI applications including something I haven't seen elsewhere- Appendix E (pdf) lists the names of agency decision makers and a mini scorecard for each of the number of FOI decisions made,  access granted in full or part, and access refused.

On the really big Victorian picture, back to Professor Lidberg:
“Victorian Freedom of Information is one of the poorest functioning access to information laws in the country,” Mr Lidberg said. “It’s slow, cumbersome and expensive to use.”
You can add very dated to that.The 1983 act shows the finest thinking of the nineteen seventies and eighties. Other than a new review system on which the jury is still out, it shows none of the more expansive thinking of more recent times about transparency and open government.

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