The number of timely Freedom of Information (FOI) decisions made by Victorian departments and agencies in the five years to 2020 slipped by 16%, representing what the Information commissioner describes as a ‘concerning trend’ that warrants a review of the Act.
The decline of FOI decisions that were made on time from 95% in 2015 to 79% in 2020 was disclosed in a report published by the Victorian Information Commissioner in September.
Information commissioner Sven Bluemmel said the ‘concerning trend’ must be arrested and reversed, delivering 16 recommendations to improve the process.
“Delay can fundamentally undermine the public’s right to access information. The passage of time causes information to lose currency, accuracy, relevance and impact,” Bluemmel said.
The report for the commissioner’s Own Motion investigation was tabled in the Victorian parliament last week and considered the extent of delays to FOI requests — and their reasons — within Victoria Police, the Department of Justice and Community Safety, the Department of Transport, Alfred Health and Frankston City Council.
Among the reasons established for delays responding to FOI requests were resourcing issues and the impact of COVID-19, and limitations brought about by process, technology, culture and communication issues.
Based on the commissioner’s findings, the report called for a wide-ranging review of the state’s disclosure of government documents under the Freedom of Information Act 1982. In Bluemmel’s view, the FOI Act itself is contributing to some delays and should be updated to reflect ‘more modern public administration’ and ordinary digital capabilities.
“The FOI Act has not been substantially reviewed or reformed since it was passed in 1982,” Bluemmel said.
“My investigation has identified a need for the Act to be modernised. A robust FOI system where decisions are made in a timely manner increases government transparency and enhances the long-term health of our democracy.”