Australian public servants are uniting to demand a change to FOI guidelines

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday September 24, 2019

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Federal public service leaders want the official FOI guidelines changed to support their standard practice of shielding the names and contact details of staff below senior executive level wherever possible.

There is “no basis under the FOI Act” to consider an employee’s level a factor when deciding if their name can be hidden, the guidelines state. But in a coordinated push, the APS is challenging this longstanding interpretation of the letter and intention of the law.

A throng of APS departments and other federal agencies have united behind Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott, who wants the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner to change the current “policy position” set out in the official guidance. The Community and Public Sector Union supports the bosses in this case.

Many agencies cite harrowing tales of harassment and abuse staff members have suffered after their identities were released in FOI documents.

Despite the lack of any legal basis to limit identity exposure to the SES, departments try to do so wherever they can. They propose to block out names of staff they consider “junior” unless the applicant objects. Very few do object, according to the APS chorus.

They sometimes do this even if the applicant does object by claiming certain exemptions apply to the information, as other submissions attest, forcing the applicant to appeal to the chronically underfunded OAIC if it matters that much to them.

The longstanding guidance holds that names usually stay in documents unless “special circumstances” make it unreasonable to release them. Woolcott wants that idea cut from the guidelines, with respect to staff below the senior executive service.

He suggests the OAIC relax the guidelines so agencies can redact all identifying information that is not already “well known, is known to be or have been associated with the matters dealt with in the document, or is available from publicly accessible sources” without any special circumstances.

Woolcott says “disclosure can and does cause APS employees unnecessary stress and anxiety [and] expose APS employees to unjustified and repeated criticism online, including defamatory, trolling-type commentary and unsubstantiated allegations made online by anonymous individuals” along with other kinds of “unwanted attention, not just online but in person”.

He contends that “disclosure achieves no public purpose that cannot be addressed by other, ordinary means of contacting APS agencies” and many agencies agree. Some say they don’t want to give out any phone numbers or email addresses other than their main ones.

Not all federal departments and agencies are in lockstep on the issue, with some telling the OIAC they do not consider work phone numbers and email addresses to be personal information.

“Under the FOI Act, the names and contact details of public sector decision makers must be disclosed unless there are exceptional circumstances,” the OAIC told The Mandarin. “Identifying those involved in decision-making processes is an important component of our transparency framework.”

After the consultation, the plan is to “consider the current guidelines, and whether additional guidance or training is required”.

Read our analysis of the perspectives raised across many of the submissions at Mandarin Premium.

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