SA ombudsman wants bureaucrats to let FOI officers do their job

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday September 23, 2019

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South Australian Ombudsman Wayne Lines has expressed concern over the involvement of department chief executives and ministers in the Freedom of Information process, and has called for an Information Commissioner to be installed.

The watchdog questioned the ability of public servants to handle the growing pile of FOI applications, noting that interference from the top could slow the process down, according to The Advertiser

“Freedom of Information officers are meant to be independent, meant to be trained and have the competency to make the determinations. They should be able to make the determination and then, perhaps, advise the CEO and the minister after the fact, not to wait for them to have a look at it,” he said.

“It creates the impression that maybe the chief executive and the minister are holding things up, or maybe subtly influencing the determination, which should not be happening.” 

Last year, Lines suggested that ministers and department heads who interfere with the FOI be fined and publicly named, and called for laws which grant his office the power to investigate agencies when they claim they cannot find information.

Now the Ombudsman is urging the state to establish an Information Commissioner to oversee government-stored data. SA and Tasmania are the only state and territory that do not currently have the position.

Lines argued that while departments and agencies have upped their intake of information on the public, they have not been transparent about how it has been used.

“I think it is a looming issue where there’s analysis happening with the data — and programs and strategies are being developed around that data — but I don’t know whether the public’s been told about that,” he said.

“It’s similar to the social media space, where suddenly people are being surprised that all the content they’ve had through social media is actually being used to develop profiles on them for marketing strategies and political campaigns. And they have not been told about it upfront.

“The government is in a similar position where it’s got access to a huge amount of information on its citizens and is using that, most of the time depersonalised, still nevertheless, to develop programs and design allocation of resources.

“But the public is not being told, and I think there needs to be more openness in that.” 

A spokesperson for the SA Attorney-General Vickie Chapman told The Advertiser the government knew of the call for an Information Commissioner, but revealed little else.

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