Page 1194 - Week 04 - Wednesday, 10 May 2023

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I would like to read just a few lines from the explanatory statement to the Freedom of Information Bill 2016, upon which the current act is based. I am reading from page 2, about the intentions of the current freedom of information regime in the ACT. It reads:

Underpinning the Bill is the principle that a public right to government information is essential for an effective democracy. Consequently the Bill is designed to make information held by the Government more accessible—

I want to repeat that phrase: “more accessible”—

to the community than it has ever been before. The Bill creates a statutory right of access to information held by the Government wherever it is not contrary to the public interest for that information to be disclosed and sets up a clear framework for determining the public interest in the disclosure or non disclosure of government information. Information will only remain confidential where it is on balance contrary to the public interest to release the information; that is there must be a clearly identifiable harm to the public interest from the release of the information that outweighs the public interest in disclosure and necessitates non disclosure.

That is from the explanatory statement to the FOI Bill 2016. It is unfortunate to see a bill that flies in the face of these very strong commitments; a bill of which many parts are anti pro-disclosure, in particular, by delaying disclosure.

It is a well-known phrase—and I think it is widely accepted—that justice delayed is justice denied. As we will see when I speak to these clauses later today, disclosure delayed is disclosure denied.

When I look at the clearly defined issues with the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act currently across the public service—I spent many hours with the Special Minister of State teasing this out in hearings—there are a few standout themes: a lack of resourcing to meet targets; a lack of training and education, which, as the Auditor-General said at the 2022 annual reports hearings, was what he thought was one of the main contributors to bad procurement practice and outcomes in the public service; and a lack of ICT transformation.

We need to get smarter. Unfortunately, the government’s commitment to smart digitisation is not very high. A 2020 Deloitte report titled The freedom of information review, commissioned by the ACT government into FOI processes, highlighted several findings, and I will state a few of those, including:

2018/19 and 2019/20, an average processing time for FOIs across all the directorates of approx. 30 days.

There should be consideration of flexibility in FTE to help increase processing, as variability in demand is hard to establish.

There should be consideration of making temporarily funded FOI FTE permanently funded, to ensure there is enough trained staff. Currently over 40% of FTE responsible for processing FOI are temporarily funded, which has a negative impact on staff retention, productivity, and effectiveness.

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