Scrutiny screws turn on agencies under Vic FOI changes

By David Donaldson

December 9, 2015

Victoria’s Freedom of Information Commissioner would have greater powers to obtain documents from public sector agencies reluctant to give them up under the recommendations of a committee report.

The committee charged with oversight of Victoria’s integrity agencies has called for increased transparency as the government moves to update the state’s integrity system.

The Parliamentary Accountability and Oversight Committee report examines the 2014-15 annual reports of the Victorian Ombudsman, Freedom of Information Commissioner and Victorian Inspectorate.

It recommends government consider how to ensure the FOI Commissioner — an agency the government will rename and reform — has “sufficient powers to obtain documents where there are grounds to believe that documents provided in response to an FOI request are incomplete”. And it says agencies should publish more data on how they handle complaints. Committee chair Neil Angus said:

“The committee considered it timely to recommend performance enhancements for the government to consider as part of proposed changes expected to be introduced to parliament in December 2015.”

The government introduced legislation into the Victorian Parliament on Tuesday to strengthen the powers of the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission and Victorian Auditor General’s Office. It will also make it easier for Victorians to complain to the Ombudsman. The FOI Commissioner will be replaced by a Public Access Counsellor.

The report makes 13 recommendations to the Victorian government, with the objective of improving service provision and responsiveness to the public and greater accountability through transparent data and information reporting:

  1. That the Freedom of Information Commissioner (or the new Public Access Counsellor) be required to publish a detailed description of the way in which outcomes are achieved for review applicants through formal and informal resolution of requests for reviews.
  2. That the Victorian Government considers what powers the new Public Access Counsellor should have to ensure early engagement with, and prompt action by, agencies in relation to Freedom of Information requests.
  3. That the Victorian Government should consider a range of possible measures to ensure that the new Office of the Public Access Counsellor has sufficient powers to obtain documents where there are grounds to believe that documents provided in response to an FOI request are incomplete.
  4. That the Freedom of Information Commissioner (or the new Public Access Counsellor) and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal provide clearer guidance to individuals and agencies relating to appeal of FOI decisions of agencies directly to VCAT.
  5. That in a subsequent annual report, the Freedom of Information Commissioner (or the new Public Access Counsellor) provides data that identifies how delays have been resolved and workflow enhanced.
  6. That the Freedom of Information Commissioner (or the new Public Access Counsellor) be required to publish, a detailed description of the way in which outcomes are achieved for complainants through informal complaint resolution.
  7. That the Freedom of Information Commissioner (or the new Public Access Counsellor) be required to include in subsequent annual reports, the time taken to resolve complaints.
  8. That the Freedom of Information Commissioner (or the new Public Access Counsellor) develops a protocol for the release of information that is the subject of frequent Freedom of Information requests that are likely to be routinely granted.
  9. That the Ombudsman includes more transparent reporting in its next annual report regarding how many approaches:
    • received in each financial year are finalised in that year
    • outstanding from the previous financial year are finalised by the end of the current financial year
    • remain outstanding overall at each financial year end.
  10. That the Victorian Government considers reviewing the Ombudsman’s output targets to ensure greater consistency on how many approaches:
    • received in each financial year are finalised in that year
    • outstanding from the previous financial year are finalised by the end of the current financial year
    • remain outstanding overall at each financial year end.
  11. That the Victorian Government implements reforms to address the Committee’s recommendations in previous reports relating to the treatment of protected disclosures under the Ombudsman Act 1973 (Vic).
  12. In order to enhance the collaborative efforts across the public sector, the Victorian Government implements reforms to ensure the confidentiality provisions in the Ombudsman Act 1973 (Vic) facilitate collaborative efforts to resolve complaints.
  13. The Victorian Inspectorate, in subsequent annual reports, outlines the methodology and process undertaken in assessing all complaints against the Ombudsman and Ombudsman officers.
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