Most FOI officers believe in transparency, but their bosses don’t have their backs: study

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday October 9, 2019

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Most public servants who process freedom-of-information requests are “sincere, passionate and committed” to government transparency, according to a recent study, but they often face obstacles due to senior executives who see it as a low priority.

The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner teamed up with Associate Professor Johan Lidberg from Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism to survey six public sector bodies covering small, medium and large departments as well as local council administration. This was followed by focus groups with 27 FOI officers.

The government of the day is often blamed for any perceived deficiencies or delays in transparency, but FOI officers unanimously rated the attitude of public service bosses as a bigger factor than political leadership in building a healthy culture around FOI processes. “This is the most important finding in the study,” according to the report (emphasis in original).

The study finds culture is the key to a well-functioning FOI system and information commissioner Sven Bluemmel wants public service leaders to make it clear they are pro-disclosure.

“The public’s right to access information is crucial for accountability and leads to better policy outcomes,” Bluemmel said. “I would encourage public sector leaders to facilitate the proactive release of information where possible.”

At the coalface of FOI processing, Dr Lidberg found differing attitudes towards the idea that agencies should proactively release information as much as possible. “The majority viewed proactive release as the norm, whereas others took the view that their job was to administer the FOI Act only,” he reports.

A quote from one FOI officer, presented in the report’s introduction, exemplifies this minority view: “Proactive release [of information] is not part of FOI,” they asserted. “OVIC has responsibility for information policy [such as proactive release of information], I have responsibility for release of information under the FOI Act … my job isn’t to release as much information as you can to the public, my job is to respond to FOI requests.”

Proactive disclosure is not enshrined in the Victorian legislation like it is in other jurisdictions, but Lidberg says it should be.

The report also emphasises the importance of recruiting the right kind of people to work in FOI. “FOI coordinators and managers spoke at length about the importance of recruiting staff that have a passion for FOI, are independent and integrity-strong, and have a will to facilitate information access.”

Other anonymous quotes respectively point out the “real-life impact” of access to government information as a tool of democratic empowerment, argue FOI application fees are a barrier to transparency, and describe different kinds of FOI cultures that exist in different agencies.

“There is a culture of pro-disclosure in my agency,” says one. “I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s there. I see it in senior management being OK with potentially embarrassing information being released. Perhaps it’s a state of Victoria thing, with the state being progressive on these matters.”

Another says the culture is the other way around in their agency: “When I did OVIC training the message was, ‘How can the act be interpreted to release information?’ But in my agency, it seems the opposite applies — what exemption can we apply to not release information?”

The professor produced eight recommendations on how to improve Victoria’s FOI law and encourage a stronger and more consistent culture of proactive transparency across the public sector.

Lidberg says Bluemmel should focus his efforts to foster more positive attitudes towards FOI on secretaries, CEOs and other senior executives, for obvious reasons. He also suggests new guidelines could encourage the recruitment of FOI officers who truly believe in the intent of the legislation.

The study was only a small pilot with modest aims. Lidberg mainly wanted to validate his approach to capturing “the culture of administering FOI” and pave the way for more comprehensive research involving several other jurisdictions, and in that regard he claims to have succeeded.

The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner is hosting a seminar to discuss the report on October 29.

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