Stats on secrecy: national FOI data shows the leaders and laggards in transparency

By Stephen Easton

November 28, 2017

The Northern Territory’s public servants don’t receive that many applications for the release of government information, but when they do, they reject more than their counterparts in any other government.

Queensland and Tasmania are not far behind in terms of blocking access, according to new national statistics on the use of Freedom of Information schemes (or Right to Information in Qld and Tasmania) for each government except the ACT.

When it comes to speed, a complete national picture isn’t available but it is clearly Tasmania and the Commonwealth that miss their statutory time frame most often, and both got worse in 2015-16 compared to 2014-15.

The number that go to review by an ombudsman or FOI commissioner is fairly low across the board, but Tasmania clearly sees the most appeals.

2015-16 data.

In the NT, access to information was granted in whole or in part only 70% of the time over 2015-16, while 20% of requests were rejected completely.

The preceding year, NT government agencies released at least some information in response to 67% of requests and rejected 21% entirely.

Tasmanian agencies granted at least partial access to 82% of applicants in 2014-15, and 77% of applicants the following financial year. They rejected only 12% entirely in 2014-15, but the figure rose to 17% in 2015-16.

NT agencies provided less access than any other government across the two financial years covered, according to the two metrics, except for full refusals in 2014-15, when Queensland’s RTI officers put the kybosh on 24% of requests.

In that year, however, the Queenslanders granted some access in 76% of cases. In 2015-16, they gave out information 81% of the time and totally rejected 19% of requests, only marginally less than in the NT.

2015-16 data.

The first set of nationwide figures were released this week as one of Australia’s commitments to the international Open Government Partnership.

Not all FOI requests can be granted of course, and not all rejections demonstrate excessive secrecy, but it does appear that sometimes FOI officers see their job as invoking the maximum number of exemptions to minimise how much information is released, as a matter of course, even if there is no sensitivity. To applicants, some parts of the process can often seem like a waste of everyone’s time or even deliberate obstruction to prevent embarrassment.

The Tasmanian government has come under fire from all sides in state parliament recently, and the head of the Department of Treasury was forced to defend his agency’s RTI practices after a snafu involving the ABC.

The ABC reports a senior officer from the department said it was routine practice that RTI officers could not access all the department’s information, but secretary Tony Ferrall said the incident was the result of accident rather than design.

Western Australians and South Australians made the most formal applications in both years, closely followed by Victorians, who made almost as many.

2015-16 data.

The relevant ombudsman or information commissioner in each state and territory co-signed a statement accompanying the data release.

“The right to access information is a fundamental tenet of Open Government.

“The dashboard of metrics on public use of FOI access laws is a first for Australia. The dashboard reflects the currently available data that is reasonably comparable across jurisdictions and the priority in Australia’s first Open Government National Action Plan to promote the importance of better measuring and improving our understanding of the public’s use of rights under freedom of information laws.

“We encourage the community to use the dashboard to better understand how FOI laws can be used to ensure government is releasing and providing access to more information to build public trust and promote an effective and contemporary model of Open Government that is fair, accountable and transparent.”

The statement was co-signed by:

  • Elizabeth Tydd, Information Commissioner, New South Wales
  • Rachael Rangihaeata, Information Commissioner, Queensland
  • Timothy Pilgrim, Australian Information Commissioner
  • Brenda Monaghan, Information Commissioner, Northern Territory
  • Richard Connock, Ombudsman, Tasmania
  • Sven Bluemmel, Information Commissioner, Victoria
  • Wayne Lines, Ombudsman, South Australia
  • Su Lloyd, Acting Information Commissioner, Western Australia
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