COST TO APPLICANTS
The cost to applicants associated with FOI includes the application fee (which increases each financial year in line with usual fee indexation to reflect inflation),1 and access charges for certain services undertaken by agencies in relation to providing access to documents.
To make a valid FOI request under section 17, an applicant must pay an application fee. Section 17(2B) outlines that agencies may waive or reduce the application fee if payment of the fee would cause financial hardship to the applicant.
Between 2014 and 2019, on average agencies collected $706,097.64 in application fees. In this period, agencies waived or reduced $252,435.56 in application fees on average per year (Table 15). From 2014 to 2019, agencies collected a larger sum of application fees, from $630,990.60 to $816,273.24 respectively.
The percentage of application fees collected, compared to fees waived or reduced, increased slightly overall, but stayed relatively constant. The increase in fees collected is therefore likely a reflection of the increasing number of FOI requests received and the annual increase in the FOI application fee rather than significant changes in agency practices. The decrease in application fees waived may also reflect a decrease in applicants who request a fee waiver due to financial hardship.
Table 15: Application fees collected and waived or reduced from 2014 to 2019
|Application fees collected||$630,990.60||$704,431.47||$546,670.90||$832,122.00||$816,273.24|
|% application fees collected||71.72%||75.35%||73.50%||75.03%||72.55%|
|Application fees waived or reduced||$248,820.20||$230,404.83||$197,108.20||$276,925.69||$308,918.86|
|% application fees waived||28.28%||24.65%||26.50%||24.97%||27.45%|
Access charges are payable when a decision is made to provide access to documents in full or in part. Their purpose is to ensure agencies may recover some of the costs associated with providing access to documents in response to an FOI request. For example, access charges include photocopying documents, providing access to documents in an alternative form, supervising the viewing of documents, search costs, and generating documents from electronic data.2 Charges must be waived in limited circumstances, including where the applicant is impecunious, and the request is for their personal documents.3
Between 2014 and 2019, on average agencies collected $962,704.46 in access charges and waived $170,680.36 in access charges per year (Table 16). Like the collection of application fees, from 2014 to 2019, agencies collected a larger sum of access charges, from $824,706.28 to $922,902.00 respectively, although the sum fluctuated each year.
However, agencies waived a higher percentage of access charges (from 13.99% in 2014-15 and 16.52% in 2018-19), although this fluctuated over the past five years. Similar to application fees collected, this may be attributable to the increased number of FOI requests received and decisions made rather than significant changes in agency practices.
Table 16: Access charges collected and waived from 2014 to 2019
|Access charges collected||$824,706.28||$1,150,571.25||$845,652.35||$1,069,690.42||$922,902.00|
|% access charges collected||86.01%||80.96%||88.71%||87.11%||83.48%|
|Access charges waived||$134,154.35||$270,660.86||$107,631.51||$158,274.24||$182,680.85|
|% access charges waived||13.99%||19.04%||11.29%||12.89%||16.52%|
The effort cost to agencies in administering the FOI Act relates to the salary range of agency staff involved in making FOI decisions and the percentage of their time (rounded to the nearest 5%) they spent on FOI activities.
OVIC’s annual FOI survey collects data on staff directly involved in processing FOI requests only, not those less directly involved (for example, in reviewing decisions, searching for documents, and reporting on activities).
On average, agencies spent $19,455,705.00 administering the FOI Act per year (Table 17). From 2014 to 2019, the effort cost to agencies to administer the FOI Act increased by 15.18% from $18,667,625.00 in 2014-15 to $22,008,625.00 in 2018-19.
The cost to agencies in administering the FOI Act would likely be higher if it included the cost of staff who are not directly involved in processing FOI requests (for example, those who review decisions, search for documents, or report on FOI activities). Similarly, the cost would also likely be higher if it included fees for engaging external service providers to assist agencies in responding to or advising on FOI requests (including, for example, legal consultants).
Unlike Commonwealth agencies, Victorian agencies are not required under the FOI Act to report on the additional costs incurred by agencies when they contract external service providers and lawyers to advise on, respond to and defend decisions made by agencies where access to information is refused. We consider, from the matters that come before OVIC and VCAT, that expenditure by agencies on external legal services would reasonably exceed the cost of agency FOI officers administering the FOI Act.
From 2014 to 2019, FOI expenditure remained much higher than FOI revenue (application fees and access charges). In 2018-19, agencies spent $22,008,625.00 in effort cost, and collected $1,739,175.24 in application fees and access charges combined. Per FOI request, in 2018-19 the average effort cost per request to agencies was approximately $566.12. In the same year, the average cost to applicants per request was $44.74.
Table 17: Effort cost to agencies to administer the FOI Act from 2014 to 2019
|Total effort cost||$18,667,625.00||$16,392,800.00||$19,597,475.00||$20,612,000.00||$22,008,625.00|
|Total application fees and access charges collected||$1,455,696.88||$1,855,002.72||$1,392,323.25||$1,901,812.42||$1,739,175.24|
- Department of Treasury and Finance, Indexation of Fees and Penalties, https://www.dtf.vic.gov.au/financial-management-government/indexation-fees-and-penalties.
- Section 22(1) of the FOI Act.
- Section 22(1) of the FOI Act.