Call for laws to keep public information sharing routine

By Jackson Graham

Sunday September 26, 2021

Elizabeth Tydd, the NSW information commissioner, is leading a new push for shared principles of transparent, proactive and helpful public information.
Elizabeth Tydd, the NSW information commissioner, is leading a new push for shared principles of transparent, proactive and helpful public information. {Supplied)

The nation’s information commissioners are calling for consistent legislation across jurisdictions to force governments and public bodies to proactively release information. 

In one sign of the rising demand for information from the public, NSW has seen information requests rise by 128% in the past decade, and requests for personal information climb by 230%.

Elizabeth Tydd, the NSW information commissioner, is leading a new push from Australia’s information commissioners for shared principles of transparent, proactive and helpful public information to be available in all jurisdictions. 

“We are seeing an increasing awareness of the right to access information, the importance of that right, and the exercise of that right,” Tydd told The Mandarin

The centre-piece of the commissioners’ principles calls for governments to legislate the proactive release and disclosure of information. 

Tydd said NSW and Queensland had specific legislation requiring public bodies to disclose information that other jurisdictions including the Commonwealth lacked. 

“It might exist,” she said of requirements in different jurisdictions. “But might not be a push model where legislation mandates that certain information is released.” 

A rise in contractors doing government work and of public-private partnerships, while presenting opportunities, posed risks to information staying in the public realm, Tydd said. 

“If someone says ‘I want to challenge my rental subsidy,’ and that has been calculated by an algorithm in the hands of a third-party provider, how does the government answer the question?” she said. 

Even in jurisdictions with stronger legislation Tydd said the access to information required a culture prioritising transparency. 

She pointed to examples of some departments in NSW  not properly revealing the disposal of major assets and local governments not disclosing potential conflicts of interest for councillors.  

“There are a whole lot of features going on in this new environment of government that do pose a threat to the right to access information,” Tydd said. 

The digital-era brings opportunities to access, share and collect information but challenges information sharing too, Tydd says. 

“Digital government is increasingly prevalent and citizens are giving a lot of information to governments,” she said, adding that citizens expected information back in return. 

Nationally, the commissioners have found between 70% and 90% of people are receiving the information they are asking for, with the figure varying across states and territories. 

In NSW, between 65% and 70% of requests for public information are successful, while private businesses are receiving 75% of the information they seek. 

Tydd has also recorded a rise in state-owned corporations using cabinet in confidence protections — which keep information confidential — from 33% to 67% in the past four years.

“They are not receiving huge numbers of applications but it is an entrenched trend now where we can see an entity that is further away from the traditional heartland — being a government entity — more towards a private accountability line,” she said. 

“And they are established entities, not entities commencing their establishment.”

She said the principles were a call to action but also practical guidance for public bodies to follow. 

“It’s an antidote to corruption and a way of treating the potential for corruption and risk mitigation,” Tydd said. 

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