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The State of FOI in Victoria report 2014-2019: Where to from here?

On Monday 17 February 2020, OVIC published a report on the State of FOI in Victoria: Five years in review 2014 to 2019.

A central part of OVIC’s role as a regulator is to promote understanding and acceptance of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) (FOI Act) in Victoria. We published this report to provide an analysis on the administration of the FOI Act by Victorian government agencies over a five year period and measure its effectiveness.

OVIC receives FOI data from around 1,000 Victorian government agencies each year for the preparation of OVIC’s annual report to Parliament. FOI data was reviewed from 2014 to 2019 relating to FOI requests received, decision making, reviews, complaints, costs and challenges.

It is hoped the State of FOI in Victoria report facilitates, and contributes to, a discussion around transparency, open government and what FOI in Victoria should look like in the future.

So, where to from here?

See below for guidance on the report’s key findings and recommendations.

Proactively and informally release information, where possible

The report found agencies face a range of challenges in administering the FOI Act including increased numbers of FOI requests, resourcing issues, costs and statutory time frames among others.

Proactively and informally releasing information outside of the FOI Act can address some of the resourcing challenges identified by agencies by reducing FOI workloads. Proactive and informal release can also improve outcomes for the public, by facilitating access to government information in a faster and less formal way.

See our Practice notes on Proactive release of information and Informal release of information.

Let full access be the rule, and refusal the exception

While the report 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.

OVIC encourages agencies to approach FOI requests from the position that all documents should be released unless strong, genuine, reasons exist for refusing access. See our agency template on drafting a decision letter for guidance on making a good FOI decision.

Executives and senior management need to make openness and transparency a priority

A pilot study commissioned by OVIC and conducted by Monash University in 2019 found that FOI practitioners ranked government executives as more important than political leadership in building a well-functioning FOI culture. The report also found that FOI officers’ efforts are at times hampered by executive management that do not see FOI as a priority. Read the report and our blog post on the report’s key insights.

Take a ‘transparency by design’ approach to innovation

When designing new systems and programs, agencies need to consider and uphold the public’s right to access government information. By doing so, the Victorian public sector will work towards creating a more transparent FOI system in Victoria. For guidance, see the Victorian government’s Open Data Policy.

Take advantage of OVIC’s free FOI training and guidance materials

The report found recruiting and retaining skilled FOI staff was a key 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.

To ensure FOI staff are administering the FOI Act according to best practice, agencies are encouraged to utilise OVIC’s free training and guidance materials. OVIC provides free monthly FOI training to Victorian government staff on administering the FOI Act, core and advanced exemptions. See our 2020 training calendar.

We also regularly publish FOI guidance materials to assist with administering the FOI Act and interpreting the Professional Standards. See our Practice Notes and agency templates.

For more information see:

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