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Report into the culture of FOI in Victoria: key insights

In 2019 the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) commissioned Associate Professor Johan Lidberg, Monash University, to facilitate a pilot study and produce independent research on the culture of administering the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) and the Victorian information access system overall.

Following completion of the pilot study, which was conducted from May-August 2019, Associate Professor Lidberg produced a report titled The culture of administering access to government information and freedom of information in Victoria. This blog post discusses some of the key themes and insights from the report.

  1. Proactive release is important but needs to be better supported

Proactively releasing information to the public is important. This includes not only identifying what information may be published on an agency’s website proactively, but also providing information to the public informally, outside the FOI Act, where requested.

Respondents noted challenges in facilitating and promoting proactive release of information if agency staff don’t understand what may be released and how to release it. To help combat these challenges, some agencies have developed internal proactive release policies. These policies are incredibly helpful in creating a consistent and holistic approach to proactive information release across an agency. It helps agency staff understand the kind of information they may release to the public, without requiring the individual to make an FOI request.

The report recommended that OVIC create guidance and tools on proactive release to assist agencies enhance their practice in this area.

  1. Senior management buy-in is crucial in developing a positive information access culture

In forming and maintaining a positive FOI culture, all respondents noted senior management and executive involvement is crucial. Without the support of senior management, a positive information access culture cannot be built. One respondent noted the importance of having an FOI champion at the senior executive level, to take the lead in promoting a positive information access culture.

But even with senior executive support, creating a positive FOI culture takes work and time. It also requires agency staff who care about FOI and information access, as discussed further below. The report recommended that OVIC focus its education efforts on senior management within agencies.

  1. Staff recruitment is important in fostering a culture of openness and information access

Recruiting FOI practitioners is an ongoing challenge across many agencies. It is important to have staff with specific skillsets to promote and build a positive FOI culture from the ground up. FOI practitioners should have a role in developing a proactive release policy as well, to drive change and promote a positive FOI culture. When recruiting, respondents noted they look for someone who is a good communicator and problem solver, has a strong work ethic and strong attention to detail.

  1. Third party consultation requirements can be onerous and time consuming

The report noted the amendments to the FOI Act in 2017 to strengthen third party consultation requirements significantly increased the time it takes to process requests. Similarly, there was a strong consensus amongst respondents that the term ‘practicable’ in the third party consultation requirements in the FOI Act is unclear. The report recommends legislative amendment to the third party notice requirements, or for OVIC to issue more detailed guidelines on third party consultation.

For the full list of findings and recommendations from the study, you can read the report here.

OVIC is taking the recommendations on board and will consider them when planning future work.

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