While data from the past five years shows FOI in Victoria is functioning relatively well, several areas require improvement.
From 2014 to 2019, Victoria received a record number of FOI requests. Despite the increased volume of FOI requests, and decrease in FOI decision makers across the Victorian public sector, most requests were responded to on time. Most FOI decisions made by agencies were to grant access to the requested documents in full and only a relatively small percentage of requests were subject to a review or complaint made to OVIC or review by VCAT.
However, there is room for improvement. While there are some aspects of the FOI system agencies cannot control, there are ways to address some of the challenges outlined in this report. See below for our recommendations to promote and enhance the public’s right to access government information.
PROACTIVE AND INFORMAL RELEASE MAY REDUCE FOI WORKLOADS
In light of the challenges outlined in this report, agencies are strongly encouraged, and are required in some instances under the Professional Standards, to proactively and informally release their information.
These processes reduce the number of FOI decisions made by agencies and can positively impact some of the resourcing challenges identified by agencies by reducing FOI workloads.
Proactive and informal release can also improve outcomes for the public, as intended by the FOI Act and Parliament, by facilitating access to government information in a faster and less formal way.
OVIC encourages agencies to proactively and informally release information where possible. OVIC will hold ongoing consultation with agencies to explore the assistance needed by agencies to increase proactive and informal release of information across the Victorian public sector.
LET ACCESS BE THE RULE, AND REFUSAL THE EXCEPTION
While the data shows the number of FOI requests and decisions increased over the past five years, the number of decisions to provide full access to documents decreased over this period.
OVIC acknowledges there will be instances where exemptions apply, and it is appropriate for access to documents to be refused. However, to promote openness and transparency, OVIC encourages agencies to approach FOI and other information access requests from the position that all documents should be released unless strong, genuine, reasons exist for refusing access.
Wherever possible, let full access be the rule, and refusal the exception.
SENIOR MANAGEMENT AND EXECUTIVES NEED TO MAKE OPENNESS AND TRANSPARENCY A PRIORITY
Research shows senior management and executive support is crucial to build and maintain a positive information access culture.1 OVIC’s experience is that FOI practitioners generally understand and uphold their obligations under the FOI Act and support the fundamental principles of FOI.
However, responsibility for authorising the release of agency information often lies with senior management and executives, rather than FOI practitioners. Therefore, executive buy-in to information access is essential to ensure openness and transparency are a priority in agencies.
Senior management and executives need to consider how they are upholding and implementing the object and spirit of the FOI Act, the Professional Standards, the Victorian Government’s Open Data Policy and open and accountable government to reduce formal and reactive approaches to information access requests.
UTILISE OVIC’S TRAINING AND GUIDANCE MATERIALS
FOI practitioners play an integral role in providing access to documents under the FOI Act. However, recruiting and retaining skilled staff is a challenge faced by agencies.
The increasing number of FOI requests received each year, coupled with the decreasing number of FOI decision makers places an increased burden on agencies to process requests.
OVIC offers a range of educational activities and guidance materials to assist agencies to administer the FOI Act. To assist with training and upskilling agency staff, OVIC offers free FOI training, covering the administration of the FOI Act, core exemptions, and advanced exemptions.
OVIC also hosts monthly Information Access Series Seminars on topical FOI matters aimed at FOI practitioners. Similarly, OVIC publishes a suite of guidance materials including FOI practice notes and FOI agency templates to assist agencies administer the FOI Act.
OVIC also publishes copies of de-identified review decisions made by the Information Commissioner under section 49P on OVIC’s website and on the Australasian Legal Information Institute website. These de-identified decisions demonstrate and explain the Information Commissioner’s interpretation and application of the FOI Act.
EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES AND IMPLICATIONS FOR FOI
Victorian government agencies are increasingly turning to emerging technologies to carry out their functions, inform policy and deliver services to the public. OVIC anticipates the adoption of new technologies, artificial intelligence and biometrics across government will increase over the next five years.
While technological innovation is encouraged, OVIC also encourages agencies to design systems and programs in a way that considers and upholds the public’s right to access government information and take a ‘transparency by design’ approach to innovation.
By doing so, the Victorian public sector will work towards creating a better functioning information access system in Victoria, embed transparency in the way in which government and the public sector make decisions, promote greater community participation in government and build a stronger democratic foundation for society.