The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has recommended the Department of Home Affairs appoint an ‘information champion’ after an investigation found the department has been failing to meet its obligations under Freedom of Information laws.
While the FOI Act requires commonwealth agencies to process FOI requests within 30 days, a recent investigation by the OAIC found that over the past four years, more than 50% of the FOI requests to Home Affairs for non-personal information were processed outside of the mandatory time frame.
The department also lacks the governance and systems of accountability needed to ensure it can comply with its obligations, the OAIC found. A lack of leadership was also highlighted as an issue.
“In a general sense, a greater degree of senior level support and leadership for embedding policies, procedures and systems of accountability for compliance with the statutory processing periods in the FOI Act, would assist the department in meeting the statutory processing period requirements of the FOI Act,” commissioner Angelene Falk wrote.
Falk said factors that have contributed to delays include inadequate processes for addressing the escalation and finalisation of decisions, and inadequate training of non-FOI staff engaged in specific FOI requests.
The OAIC has made four recommendations to ensure Home Affairs can meet its statutory obligations under the FOI Act. According to the OAIC, Home Affairs should:
- Appoint an ‘information champion’ to promote and operationalise its compliance with the FOI Act,
- Prepare and implement an operational manual for processing requests for non-personal information, and make it available on its website,
- Provide additional FOI training to staff, and
- Audit the implementation and operationalisation of the recommendations and provide a copy of the audit report to the OAIC.
The information champion would be a Senior Executive Service officer, and could be supported by an information governance board comprised of SES officers, the OAIC suggested.
As part of their roles, the champion and governance board would ensure Home Affairs has best practice governance arrangements and adequate resources to meet its obligations under the FOI Act; take proactive steps to encourage the development and implementation of appropriate FOI Act compliance policies and procedures by the department; and be a “focal point” for managing issues and developing strategic plans for FOI management within the department.
In his response to the report, Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo said the department’s first assistant secretary, data division would be appointed as information champion. Steve Davies currently serves in this role.
The OAIC noted that the problems raised during the investigation have been highlighted in the past.
“It is apparent that issues of delay have persisted in the department over a number of years and have been the subject of numerous previous reviews,” Falk wrote.
“The OAIC also notes that many of the findings and recommendations in this investigation have been the subject of previous reports, indicating a serious need for issues of delay to be rectified and sustained. For example, the 2012 own motion investigation of the then Department of Immigration recommended that the department should consider and address inadequate internal governance arrangements for controlling delays in processing non-routine FOI requests, and for ensuring senior executive supervision of those requests as well as failures to consider applying to the OAIC for extensions of time to process requests under section 15AB or 15AC of the FOI Act.”
Home Affairs has accepted the recommendations.
The OAIC began its investigation in October 2019, after it received a number of complaints regarding Home Affairs’ compliance with meeting FOI timeframes.