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The public’s right to access government information suffered during the pandemic

New report shows existing FOI challenges worsened in the last three years 

The Office of the Victorian Commissioner (OVIC) has published a report on the State of Freedom of Information in Victoria: a special look at FOI from 2019 – 2021.

The report contains data on the administration of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) (FOI Act) by Victorian government agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic between 2019 and 2021.

Data was analysed from agencies and OVIC relating to freedom of information (FOI) requests received, decision making, reviews, complaints, costs, and challenges faced by agencies in administering the FOI Act during the pandemic.

The data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing challenges in administering the FOI Act. This had a significant impact on some agencies meeting their statutory obligations. There were also new challenges including reduced FOI resourcing where staff were re-allocated to public health efforts, and difficulties in processing FOI requests including conducting document searches due to remote working.

One thing that did not change is the public’s appetite for information about how they are governed. In 2020-21, Victorian government agencies received 42,249 FOI requests. This is the highest number of requests ever received in Victoria and more than any other Australian jurisdiction.

Between 2019 and 2021, agencies took longer to make FOI decisions, making 80% of decisions within the statutory timeframe. This is a decline of around 8% from 2014 to 2019 when 88% of decisions were made on time.

“This report clearly shows that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened existing challenges with the FOI Act and impeded the public’s right to gain timely access to government-held information” said Information Commissioner Sven Bluemmel.

“It’s clear that the FOI Act needs to be updated to reflect modern public administration and the digital information environment.”

Concerningly, the report also shows that Victorian government agencies increasingly relied on broad exceptions to refuse FOI requests during the pandemic.

Section 25A(5) of the FOI Act may be used to categorically refuse an FOI request without identifying or processing any documents. The number of times this mechanism was used by agencies almost tripled.

“Providing public access to government-held information is essential for the long-term health of a democratic society. Public transparency is crucial for demonstrating integrity, being accountable and earning trust” said Mr Bluemmel.

Considering these challenges, OVIC encourages agencies to build resilience in how they provide public access to government information.

Agencies should proactively and informally release information outside the FOI Act where possible, design new systems and processes with transparency at their core, and utilise OVIC’s guidance, training, and resources to build their access to information capability.

This special report was published to improve understanding of the FOI Act in Victoria and how the public’s right to access information can be better promoted and protected in public health, and other, crises in the future.

For media enquiries contact:

Simone Martin

t:  0466 097 816

For enquiries about freedom of information in Victoria contact:

Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC)

t:  1300 006 842

For further background, please refer to:


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