Thursday, March 24, 2011

Effect of FOI reforms on ICT systems of government

The last talk I attended at the ACS Canberra Conference was Dr. James Popple, Australian Freedom of Information Commissioner, talking about the FOI reforms of government and what this requires of the information systems government uses.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner commenced 1
November 2010. This integrates information management, privacy and FOI functions of government.

The new approach is pro-disclosure, treating government information as a national resource. FOI requests can now be submitted by email with no application charges and lower processing charges. The AOIC can investigate complaints about FOI was well help agencies with their

The first review was "Crowe and NBN Co Ltd". This was a journalist complaining that NBN Co did not provide documents. The decision was that NBN Co. is not subject to the FOI act, as it is not a government agency.
The results are published on the AOIC web site and AustLii.

There are fewer exemptions under the new FOI Act. The seniority and potential embarrassment to senior government officials are specifically not allowed as reasons not to supply documents under FOI.

Documents relating to contract work by private companies are subject to the FOI act.

A disclosure log must be kept by each agency listing documents released (except ones which relate to personal information about individuals). Entries must be included in the log within ten days of release by the document. AOIC is seeking comment on how to do this and have a blog.

Also all agencies must publish information about the agency on their web site (IPS).

IPS may require agencies to publish hundreds of thousands of documents as of 1 May 2011. As Dr. Popple pointed out, agencies are required documents in an accessible format. But agencies may only have some documents on paper, which would need to be scanned in. The image format of the documents are not accessible. Dr. Popple indicated that the AOIC will expect agencies to set realistic timetables as to when and how they will make information available.

Dr. Popple pointed out that the new FOI requirements will require integration between previously separate FOI, records management and web publishing systems.

John Hilvert asked if the AOIC would have an FOI feed, the response was that they were looking at it.

I asked if the penalties in the FOI were sufficient to provide an incentive for staff in agencies to comply. Dr. Popple pointed out there was no penality to the agency, apart from being reported to their minister. However, there was a "no prejudice" provision to be inserted
as 1 May. This will mean that a member of the public can't be disadvantaged by something which should have been published but was not.

Dr. Popple pointed out that agencies could take the opportunity to streamline their operational and other documents. If agencies have a lot of cumbersome separate documents used internally, it might be worth combining them into a more logical structure before public release.

Dr. Popple pointed out that the FOI act uses the terms "document" and "information" almost "interchangeably". So the act most likely applies to collections of electronic data in databases, which are not structured as traditional documents. He suggested that agencies might take the opportunity to ensure information is understandable, but I wonder if some agencies may decide to make the information as unintelligible as possible. ;-)

Dr. Popple pointed out that there is no definitive list of agencies which are subject to the FOI act. So it is not possible for AOIC to have a definitive list.

ps: Dr. Popple is helping with the course COMP7420 Electronic Document and Records Management Technology, in his role as an Adjunct Lecturer at the Austrlaian National Unviersity

1 comment:

Tom Worthington said...

Senator Scott Ludlam (who opened the ACS Conference) proposed a "Review of operation of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 so far as that Act relates to documents of NBN Co", which the Government agreed to and has been passed.

However, the review does not of itself change the FOI Act to cover NBN Co. It seems reasonable to me that the FOI act should apply to NBN Co., given that it has a legislated monopoly and acts at the direction of the Minister for Broadband.