A report by the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) found that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing challenges surrounding freedom of information (FOI) requests.
An increase in delays in the ability of agencies to process FOI requests has resulted in significant delays, while OVIC received an increase in complaints about FOI requests, which were up 46% from 2019 to 2021.
Demands placed on agencies by the pandemic worsened underlying issues; the report identified the increase in large and complex FOI requests during the pandemic when both media and the public were attempting to make sense of government decisions.
It was further found that the number of times section 25A(5) of Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) was cited by agencies nearly tripled, from 10% to 30%. The section allows an agency or minister to refuse an FOI request without identifying or processing the documents.
Challenges around working from home, access to hard copy documents and adapting to remote work were also barriers to the timeliness of FOI responses.
The report noted a consistent increase in FOI requests, at 3% each year, ‘creates an unsustainable burden on agencies to process more FOI requests with limited resources’.
In the report, Victorian information commissioner Sven Bluemmel said that the document is an effort to contribute to the knowledge of the operation of FOI during the pandemic.
“[OVIC] wanted to highlight how the public’s right to access information can be better promoted and protected during times of crisis. During such times, access to government information and government transparency and accountability are more important than ever,” said Bluemmel.
Suggestions moving forward in the report include principal officers ensuring their agencies have the necessary resources to respond to FOI requests and to be proactive about the release of information.
The data relied on by the report was provided by approximately 1,000 agencies. Each agency was responsible for the accuracy of the data provided to OVIC.
The full report can be found here.