FOI and COVID-19 FAQs
Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), many Victorian government agencies enacted business continuity plans and commenced working remotely from March 2020.
Since March 2021, despite the gradual return to office-based working arrangements, many agency officers continue to work remotely due to social distancing requirements. OVIC notes it is a matter for individual agencies to determine the working structure and location of its workforce; however, agencies must continue to meet their statutory obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) (FOI Act) and responsibilities under the FOI Professional Standards.
While working remotely initially posed some challenges when administering the FOI Act, the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) notes that many agencies rapidly adapted their work processes to best position themselves to meet their ongoing statutory obligations.
However, remote working arrangements, staff resourcing and the redeloyment of frontline agency staff to assist with COVID-19-related duties led to delays in the processing of freedom of information (FOI) requests by some agencies.
OVIC acknowledges a small number of agencies have acquired a backlog of requests and are experiencing ongoing challenges in the timely processing of FOI requests. OVIC encourages applicants to take a flexible and practical approach when consulting with an agency on the scope of an FOI request with a view to the agency being able to efficiently identify and process relevant documents.
OVIC has developed frequently asked questions (FAQs) for agencies and members of the public who intend to make an FOI request, or have made an FOI request.
Please note: These FAQs will be retired on 30 April 2021 as agencies return to office-based work arrangements in line with Victorian Government advice.
FOI and COVID-19 FAQs for the public
I want to make an FOI request but I am unclear whether the agency is still working remotely or returned fully to its office. What are some things I should consider when making my request?
Despite the gradual return to office-based working arrangements from March 2021, many agency officers continue to work remotely. As such, many agencies continue to rely heavily on electronic forms of communication (such as email) and payment of application fees and access charges (such as credit card).
If possible, try to make your FOI request electronically (for example, by email or online).
Similarly, if you’re not sure how to pay the FOI application fee, talk to the agency about any electronic payment methods it offers.
I made an FOI request to an agency and they told me they can’t access some of the documents I have requested, what can I do?
Some agency staff continue to work remotely and some staff are diverted from their usual duties to assist their agency or other agencies with COVID-19 related work. For some agencies, this may mean limited access or more time is required to access hard copy documents.
OVIC continues to encourage agencies and applicants to take a flexible and practical approach to making and managing FOI requests. Communicate with the agency and work together to find an outcome that works.
For example, the agency may ask you to narrow the scope of your request so it can focus on the documents it does have access to, so it can provide you with a decision sooner. If you would prefer that the agency processes the request as a whole (without narrowing the scope to the documents the agency can currently access), the agency may ask you to agree to an extension of time to process your request. This is so the agency can comply with the statutory timeframe under the FOI Act, and means you will receive a decision on the whole request at a later date.
I made an FOI request to an agency and they haven’t given me a decision on time, what can I do?
Some agencies continue to experience delays in processing FOI requests following the lengthy disruption to working arrangements between March 2020 and March 2021.
OVIC continues to encourage agencies and applicants to take a flexible and practical approach to making and managing requests. Communicate with the agency and work together to find an outcome that works.
For example, the agency may ask you to agree to an extension of time to process your request. This is so the agency can comply with the statutory timeframe under the FOI Act, and means you will receive a decision on the request at a later date.
If your request is large (for example, you have requested access to a large number of documents), you may be asked to reduce the size of your request so that it may be processed in time. You do not have to agree to such a request, but it is helpful to discuss the scope of your request with the agency and work together to reach a solution that works.
If you do not wish to agree to the extension of time and the due date for the request passes, you have the right to make a complaint to OVIC or apply to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) on the basis that the agency is taken to have refused your request.
OVIC encourages applicants to first contact the agency to discuss any delay in processing an FOI request and to work with the agency to find a suitable outcome. If you are still not satisfied, you have the right to make a complaint to OVIC about an action taken, or failed to be taken, by an agency (or a Minister) when performing functions or meeting its obligations under the FOI Act.
Please refer to Make a Complaint for more information on OVIC’s complaints process. .
If you do not wish to make a complaint to OVIC, you may seek a review under section 53 of the FOI Act by VCAT on the basis of a deemed refusal. For more information regarding applying to VCAT see their COVID-19 response information.