Public servants talk right to information at leaders’ symposium


Information Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd and Attorney General Mark Speakman at the launch.

Public sector leaders have joined up in Sydney this week to discuss issues surrounding digital government, including ethics, the definition of public interest, and accountability.

The NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman launched the state’s Right to Know Week 2019 at the Public Sector Leaders’ Symposium in Sydney on Wednesday. 

The NSW Information and Privacy Commission’s campaign runs from 30 September to 6 October. It aims to raise awareness of the public’s right to access government information and promote transparency in government.

Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd said the 2019 campaign looks at how accessing government information has become more efficient and more beneficial, but also more risky.

“Technology is being increasingly deployed to deliver services more effectively, inform planning and make government decisions ranging from subsidies to road safety. Significant public benefits flow but the fundamental rights of citizens can also be impacted,” she said.

“Technology also has the potential to offend rights, exacerbate inequality and increase corruption … The solution to this challenge lies in identifying the overarching public interest to be served by these new digital solutions.”

According to Tydd, agencies must design, test, implement and deliver technology in a way that reflects rights, ethics and transparency. 

“It is essential that NSW government agencies ensure that citizens have access to information that impacts their rights and government decision making broadly. Building information access into digital solutions and in contracts with digital service providers will ensure that the public’s right to know is guaranteed in the digital environment,” she said.

The commission hosted the symposium as well as a workshop for government information public access and information access practitioners in celebration of the campaign.

Symposium speakers included the Deputy Secretary of Customer, Delivery and Transformation William Murphy, as well as Professor Lyria Bennett Moses, Associate Professor Jane Johnston, and Dr Finn Lattimore.

Tydd said the biggest challenge government leaders face is the development and application of machine learning. 

“Our challenge in developing and applying machine learning technologies is to do so with regard to the public interest and the law. In this way we can address unprecedented challenges including delegated, iterative algorithmic decision making, the proprietary nature of software, understanding the data and source codes and importantly leave no one behind.”

Tydd also released the results of the NSW Community Attitudes to Information Access study, which examined the value individuals place on their right to access information and their experience in exercising that right.

The survey found respondents were most aware that they could access information held by state (57%) and local government (53%). Four out of ten respondents said they had contacted at least one agency in the last three years in regards to information access. This was significantly higher for younger people.

More than three quarters of respondents were successful in accessing information from at least one agency, the survey found, while 60% of those who had attempted to access information said the agencies were helpful. Only 13% said they weren’t helpful.

Tydd also released a checklist to help individuals access government information, and includes information on what could cause an application to be rejected.

“While following this checklist will assist citizens to lodge an application which provides specific details about the information sought and, for example providing the reasons why the information is important, it is also the responsibility of the agency to give the applicant assistance and a reasonable opportunity to amend the application,” she said.

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