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How transparency and privacy build trust in government

This op-ed was written by Sven Bluemmel, Victorian Information Commissioner and was distributed to media in the lead up to the Regional Roadshow on 23 March 2022

Trust in government is crucial to a healthy democracy. We need to have confidence in government’s ability to discharge its responsibilities honestly, fairly, and in the public interest. Giving the public access to information held by government plays an important role in building this confidence.

Open and transparent government enables us to gain insight into what government is doing, why it is doing it and how. This empowers us to scrutinise government decisions and hold government to account, which is crucial to building trust. An informed public is also more engaged in the democratic process and can make meaningful contributions to public policy.

To enhance transparency in government, I strongly support proactive and informal release of government information. I would like to see more agencies providing greater access to information, and more frequently, by adopting a proactive and informal approach to releasing information. There are several benefits. In addition to fostering public trust in government, proactive and informal release of information will help agencies save time and resources spent managing the increasing number of freedom of information requests they receive. It also benefits all of us when we can access government information quicker, at a lower cost.

Access to information is also crucial in times of crisis, as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, the devastating floods in Queensland and New South Wales. We rely on accurate, up-to date information to make decisions about our safety and that of our families. So too do agencies, using the information to help in recovery efforts.

Another key element of trust in government is the responsible collection and handling of personal information.The growing digital economy has significantly changed the amount of information government collects from the public, and the ways in which the information is used and disclosed. Managing personal information in a way that protects privacy helps build trust in government’s information handling practices. In turn, government gains the social licence needed to use personal information to deliver better services, develop public policy and innovate. The last two years have highlighted the value of public trust to the success of government initiatives that impact privacy, particularly where the initiatives require us to change our behaviour to achieve public health outcomes.

Community expectations about how government handles personal information have also risen as the world becomes increasingly digital. According to the 2020 Australian Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey commissioned by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, we want government to do more to protect our privacy. For government to be effective, it is crucial to public trust that government’s privacy practices keep pace with the changing economy.

The right to access information and the right to privacy underpin other human rights like freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination. Trust in government can be tenuous. But where government consistently and demonstrably respects and promotes human rights, we are more likely to see it as a trustworthy institution.

OVIC will host the first FOI and Privacy Regional Roadshow for this year on Wednesday 23 March 2022. I look forward to engaging with regional and rural government agencies to explore the themes of information access, privacy, and trust in government.

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