Victoria poaches WA information commissioner for new office

By Stephen Easton

Thursday August 31, 2017

Victoria has poached Western Australia’s information commissioner, but he gets to keep the same job title in a newly established office with combined responsibility for privacy protection and public access to government information.

Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings announced on Tuesday that the Victorian government had appointed Sven Bluemmel, who has been WA’s information commissioner since 2009 and is also president of the WA branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA).

The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner opens tomorrow, two months after its enabling legislation took effect, and the new commissioner takes office on Monday, September 25. His resignation in WA takes effect on Friday the 22nd.

“It is a great privilege to be undertaking this role – the Government’s collection, use and disclosure of information has very real impacts on the lives of each one of us,” Bluemmel said in a statement released by Jennings.

“The creation of the new Commissioner is an excellent opportunity to bring together freedom of information, privacy and data protection under a single regulator and I am looking forward to leading the new office.”

The minister said Bluemmel had “an impressive history as a leader and expert in information management” including a role where he developed an e-government strategy for the WA Public Sector Commission, before his term as information commissioner, as well as senior roles in the Australian Public Service and the private sector.

“Sven Bluemmel’s extensive experience working across freedom of information, privacy and data protection, alongside his extensive leadership in information management, make him ideally suited to lead the new office,” Jennings said.

“We said that we’d overhaul Victoria’s freedom of information system to give Victorians better access to government information and with this new office and the appointment of Mr Bluemmel, we’re doing just that.”

Sven Bluemmel

Bluemmel’s office in WA announced his resignation on Tuesday and listed some achievements such as the “introduction of conciliation conferences to quickly resolve disputes and a focus on education and outreach to government agencies and the broader community” and hosting a successful FOI conference.

“An effective freedom of information regime is an important safeguard of our Parliamentary democracy,” Bluemmel said in his exit statement. He also thanked his staff for their work.

“Together, we have built an office that is respected for its impartiality, integrity and effectiveness. I would also like to thank the freedom of information professionals in State and local government agencies who undertake an important role, often under difficult circumstances.

“They are the front line of government transparency and their roles do not always receive the recognition they deserve.”

He hopes to see government, public servants and the community “appreciate the growing importance of information in people’s lives” and encourages all parties to FOI requests to “work together constructively” as much as possible.

“While we must always strive for improvement, I leave my current position knowing that the administration of freedom of information in Western Australia today is on a fundamentally sound footing.

“There will always be differing points of view on the merits of any individual decision on document access. However, I am confident that the overall system enjoys the support of the Parliament, the public sector and the community as a whole.”

Old incumbent unimpressed with new structure

Previously there was separation between the offices of the FOI commissioner and the commissioner for privacy and data protection, both of which were abolished to make way for the controversial information commissioner model, similar to the frameworks implemented by the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments.

Former privacy commissioner David Watts was openly dismayed when the Victorian government decided to copy the model, which caused “dysfunction” elsewhere in his view. When it came time to pack up this year, he did not go quietly.

“It’s sad to see the Victorian government enact a regulatory model that does not work, for reasons it cannot explain, to achieve outcomes it does not know,” Watts told The Mandarin in May. “Victoria used to lead the nation in information policy: now it’s regarded as a backwater.”

In the new system, responsibilities for upholding the respective rights to privacy and to access government information under the relevant Victorian laws are merged at the top level. Jennings said Bluemmel had “similar responsibilities” in WA but his role there was much more focused on FOI, as the state does not have the same kind of legislative privacy regime as other jurisdictions.

In Victoria, he will be supported by two separate deputy commissioners but permanent appointments have not been made at this point. Sally Winton, who was appointed acting FOI commissioner in June, continues on as acting Public Access Deputy Commissioner. Deputy Ombudsman Stephen Mumford is the acting Privacy and Data Protection Deputy Commissioner.

In detailed comments on the reforms he published one year ago, Watts pointed out the two deputies can be fired by the minister while the information commissioner can only be dismissed by a majority vote in both houses of state Parliament. He believes this will make the new office less independent of government than its precursors and suggests the staff working for the deputies would enjoy much more job security than their boss.

“They’re really hard jobs; you need to attract the best people,” Watts said last year. “Who would want to do that job? How would you manage your staff?”

The government maintains the new system will make it easier for Victorians to access information that is hidden away inside its offices, and improve its information management standards. Jennings said it would “strengthen the transparency and accountability of government decision making” this week.

Under the new system, Victorians can ask the information commissioner to review ministerial and departmental decisions, whereas previously they would have had to go through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The standard turnaround time for FOI requests has also been shortened from 45 to 30 days.

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