Access to Information
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Access to government information, guaranteed by law, is a cornerstone of democracy.
As former Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan said recently:
The FoI Act ushered in a new era of open government in 1982. Ever since, government in Australia has been more responsive, engaged and transparent. The Australian lead was followed in many other countries. And yes, the FoI Act is not perfect. It doesn’t balance well the administrative demands on government with the ideal of public access to government information. Many recommendations for reform have been made during the past five years by the OAIC and others. There has been scant government consideration of those proposals, at least outside the bunker.There is an urgent need for constructive debate on future directions in FoI. No political party can truly claim to subscribe to a policy of open government while this impasse continues.
The development of the national action plan provides the opportunity for discussion and debate about much needed reform.
The Centre for Law and Democracy rated the Australian law 51 of 104 right to information laws reviewed, awarding 83 points out of a possible 150. Since that assessment the Government announced its intention to abolish the Office of Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). If the bill, still before the Senate, passed into law a further drop in international standing would follow.
Discussion of other reforms will be constrained while the Government maintains its position that the OAIC should be abolished and in the meantime that funding for the office not extend to the full range of its functions.
Recommendations put forward but not discussed “outside the bunker” to use Professor McMillan’s words, include those contained in the Australian Law Reform Commission 2009 report Secrecy Laws and Open Government and by Dr Allan Hawke following his independent statutory review in 2013.
Dr Hawke recommended a comprehensive review of the kind he did not undertake and noted a call from the Law Council of Australia that a complete rewrite in less complex language is long overdue.
Submissions to Dr Hawke canvassed a wide range of other issues that warrant consideration.
Briefly these include
- modernisation of the act which with its focus on written documents rather than information held in digital form still reflects 1980s realities;
- the limited pro-active release and publication requirements which for example do not incorporate grants,contracts, gift registers and data sets;
- publication and access to information and data in machine readable formats;
- exclusion from the act of the parliamentary departments as a result of legislation passed in 2013;
in the light of contracting out and privatisation, extension of the act to organisations funded by government or that carry out public functions;
- the absence of a single government wide access point for making applications;
- fees and charges;
- improvements to the process for review of agency decisions; and
- whether exemption provisions properly balance the sometimes competing interests of government and the public interest in access by citizens.
The right to access still encounters strong resistance in some areas of government despite attempts over 30 years to promote culture change, highlighting the need for a renewed effort to encourage more open and transparent government and more collaborative approaches to policy development.
In the 2013 election campaign the Coalition committed to increase access to useful public sector data.
The Report on Public Sector Data Management published by the Department of Prime Minister in December 2015 concluded:
Data is under-utilised in the APS.
Currently, the Commonwealth’s capacity to fully derive value from public sector data is constrained by competing priorities and the lack of an overarching strategy:
- There is no clear mandate for the Commonwealth to use and release public sector data.
- There are barriers (perceived and real) to sharing data within the Commonwealth and with jurisdictions to improve policy and service delivery.
- The APS lacks sufficient incentives, skills and organisational arrangements to capitalise on its data.
- The Commonwealth does not have a strong culture of publishing data to foster economic opportunities
The recommendations in the report set out an 18 month timetable of actions to change the way government does business by setting up the right frameworks, systems and capability to use, share and value data.
Commitments in the National Action Plan should be new, going beyond actions to which government is already committed.
This consultation provides the opportunity to raise for consideration ‘stretch’ commitments that build on and enhance current government plans to achieve economic and social goals and increase transparency and accountability through release of public data.
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