In case anyone was wondering, comments from most public servants on the workplace social networking app Yammer will typically be exempt from release under the federal Freedom of Information Act, because it would usually be impossible to shield their identities.
At least, that is the view of a senior lawyer from the Australian Taxation Office, who refused to release a Yammer post with 50 comments, 114 replies and a lot of likes, after it fell within the scope of an April FOI request.
The FOI officer argued that even if the names were blacked out, it would be too easy for other staff members to go back and work out who they are and then tell people outside the agency.
Regardless of the various other elements of their refusal decision, concerning the substance of the comments and the potential public interest in releasing them, it would seem this piece of logic could be applied to most of what happens on Yammer in any agency where it is used.
For the applicant, it all began with a comment made by tax commissioner Chris Jordan in March, after a speech in which he triumphantly defended the agency’s controversial debt collection practices on the basis of a report by the Inspector-General of Taxation.
Answering questions afterwards, Jordan said mistakes were to be expected in such a large organisation, with about 20,000 staff dealing with a lot of taxpayers all the time, but it was important for the ATO to “own” those mistakes and improve processes where necessary.
He then recalled some advice from a former ATO second commissioner, Bruce Quigley, who told him the agency’s workforce was like a “country town” in terms of its size and, shall we say, intellectual diversity.
“We have got everything from the professor through to — and I hesitate to say this — the village idiot.”
The FOI application asked for any documents recording discussion of the “village idiot” characterisation, including on internal networking platforms.
“A search on the ATO Yammer network for the phrase ‘Village Idiot’ revealed 1 ‘conversation’ which falls within the scope of your request, containing not less than 50 comments,114 responses and a further significant number of ‘like’ interactions from ATO staff members,” they were told.
The FOI Act protects any kind of information or an opinion “about an individual whose identity is apparent, or can reasonably be ascertained, from the information or opinion” so the request was denied.
“The ‘conversations’ requested contain the personal opinions of ATO employees whose names appear against their individual comments,” explained the Tax Office lawyer.
“However, I find that even if the names of ATO staff were removed from the documents, their identity and therefore, their opinions, would reasonably be able to be ascertained should the information be released publicly.
“I have made this finding given the relative ease with which anyone with access to the internal ATO Yammer network could attribute the comments to an individual and subsequently make those identities available to the general public.”
In a comprehensive response, the senior lawyer also argued it would be unreasonable to release this “personal information” splashing around on the Yammer network because the privacy of the staff behind the comments outweighed the public interest in releasing them.
The decision-maker argued, “the personal opinions expressed by ATO staff, particularly about non-taxation related topics such as their opinion of a speech given by the Commissioner of Taxation, are not connected to the administration of the taxation and superannuation systems and therefore the release of those opinions would not advance the public interest in government transparency and integrity” and “the individuals to whom the personal information relates are likely to have an expectation that personal opinions shared with their colleagues will not be made available to the general public.”
They decided the public interest was also diminished because in this case, the Yammerings of ATO staff would shed no light on a particular decision made by the agency or its decision-making processes in general, and revealed nothing about “policies, rules or guidelines” that inform the agency’s interactions with the public.
The ATO lawyer also decided all the staff on the Yammer thread would have to be consulted and that would be an unreasonable diversion of Tax Office resources.