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Friday, November 20, 2015

Names, signatures and initials of public servants-what's the FOI story?

Names of public servants carrying out usual functions- in the usual case not exempt.

Signatures of public servants-in the usual case exempt: unreasonable disclosure of personal information and on balance contrary to the public interest.

Initials of public servants and police officers?

Although it wasn't a major issue in the matter Acting Australian Information Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim in ‘HJ’ and Australian Federal Police [2015] AICmr 71 (6 November 2015) rejected argument that disclosure of the initials of officers appearing in a document would be unreasonable. The AFP argued the potential for identity fraud or forgery, and the fact that the author of the initials did not expect the material to be released under the FOI Act.
  1. The question of whether signatures of public servants are exempt under s 47F is an increasingly common theme in IC reviews. The Guidelines note at [6.140]:

Where public servants’ personal information is included in a document because of their usual duties or responsibilities, it would not be unreasonable to disclose unless special circumstances existed. This is because the information would reveal only that the public servant was performing their public duties. Such information may often also be publicly available, such as on an agency website.

  1. The AFP submitted that the release of staff signatures would increase the risk of identity theft or the falsification of instruments, given the powers held by AFP officers. It was also submitted that the relevant document was for internal use and because it was a professional standards form, the person would not have an expectation that their initials could be publicly released.
  2. Accepting these general submissions as to possible fraudulent use of the information would equate to me being satisfied that special circumstances exist only because the author of the initials is or was a member of the AFP.
  3. I have found that virtually all of the content of the relevant document is exempt and find no reason that would support the disclosure of the initials as unreasonable. I am not persuaded of the potential for identity fraud or forgery from the release of the initials.
  4. In my view, to accept the submission that the author of the initials did not expect the material to be released under the FOI Act and therefore release of the personal information would be unreasonable would be contrary to the objects of the FOI Act.
  5. Consistent with the decision in Stephen Waller and Department of Environment [2014] AICmr 133, and absent evidence of any special circumstances, I find that it would not be unreasonable to disclose the initials and the material is not exempt under s 47F. 
(Update: a reader has reminded me of this widespread practice across the public service in acknowledging receipt of an FOI application:
"It is the usual practice of the Department to not release the names and contact details of junior officers of the Department and other government agencies, where that personal information is contained in documents within scope of a request.  The names and contact details of senior officers will generally be released.  We will take it that you agree to the removal of junior officers’ personal information unless you advise that you would like us to consider releasing that information as part of the documents you have requested."

While it is somewhat cute, in the usual case I doubt this is of concern to the applicant. 

But it is more than cute when the 'junior officer' is senior enough to have carriage of a particular matter. In an FOI application eons ago about the snail like progress on Australian membership of the Open Government Partnership the Attorney General's Department deleted the names of 12 of 15 officials attending an interdepartmental meeting on the subject.

As I said at the time if they are senior enough to represent the department some accountabilty goes with the territory. 

Previous posts on this issue are here and here 

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