The Tasmanian government has given its public sector watchdog a funding boost to help address a large backlog of outstanding Right to Information reviews.
The office of Ombudsman Tasmania will get an extra $245,000 per year as part of the 2019-20 budget, according to attorney-general Elise Archer.
In his latest annual report, ombud Richard Connock said the money would be used to recruit staff, including an extra principal officer, and an investigation and review officer. It would also allow the existing senior investigation and review officer to stay.
“This will align Right to Information with the other jurisdictions administered by the office, each of which has a dedicated principal officer, and provide for managerial oversight with an appropriate two-tiered process,” Connock wrote.
“This level of resourcing will enable the office to clear the backlog of cases it currently struggles to deal with, and to establish practices and procedures for the more efficient handling of applications for external review in the future. It will also enable the office to work towards meeting its other legislative obligations such as the provision of high-level education and training, the review and maintenance of guidelines, and the review and update of the Right to Information Manual.
“As was the case last year and the year before, the office enjoyed an almost full complement of staff, though historic budget cuts still meant that there were a number of unfunded positions that we were unable to fill. This limited us in what we could do, particularly in relation to own motion and other large investigations.”
The report stated that more external review files were closed than opened in 2017-18, which meant the backlog of cases decreased by six. In 2018-19, however, the backlog had a net increase of 13.
Connock noted that a significant number of reviews go to him as deemed refusals of applications, due to agencies failing to comply with the statutory time frame for the delivery of a decision.
“All of this adds to the work of my office,” he reported. “In this regard, I am conscious of the large backlog of cases presently with this office, and that many of these sit with me for finalisation. Having only one officer to do all the RTI work means that I have to review each decision and the information to which it relates.
“This can be time-consuming and complex work, and with my other functions, the amount of time I can devote to the task is limited. This largely accounts for the small number of decisions finalised in the reporting year.”
The number of applications for external review made to the office this reporting year was 59, compared to 43 last year. However, Connock noted the amount of time it has taken to finalise and close decisions “remains a consistent problem”. The average for the reporting year was approximately 568 days per review, an increase of 65% from 318 days in 2017-18. The number of active cases as at June 30, 2019, was 63, up 43% from 44.
The government has also expanded the routine release of information publicly, Archer said. Recent changes to the state’s RTI laws have meant that decisions made by a minister or a minister’s delegate on whether or not to release information can now be reviewed by the ombud, at the request of applicants and external parties.