The Community Services Directorate (CSD) is struggling to cope with a surge in Freedom of Information (FOI) applications and has boosted staff to clear the backlog, the ACT Legislative Assembly heard during last week’s estimates.
The CSD was criticised by Shadow Minister for Health Vicki Dunne for routinely extending the processing times of requests; however, Director-General Rebecca Cross says that longer processing times are simply a reflection of the complexity of the requests.
“That is the approach that we take given that the number of the FOI requests that we receive is very large and we are trying to deal with them in the order that we receive them,” Ms Cross told the Committee in regards to the department’s routine extensions.
Ms Cross said the complexity of many of the FOIs received by the department are “huge, huge requests with multiple files … going back over several years and paper-based files” that can’t be handled within existing, normal staffing levels.
As the CSD continues to experience increases in FOI requests into 2019-20, the department tripled the staff handling the requests in 2016-17 from four to 10 officers. An additional two administrative support officers have also been brought in to assist with the digitisation of files, scheduling and reporting.
FOI requests have jumped sharply across the territory, with about a 20 per cent increase across all Directorates from 2017-18 to 2018-19, and a 100 per cent increase in requests received by CSD.
During the same time period, requests jumped 120 per cent for the Chief Minister, Treasury, and Economic Development Directorate, and 150 per cent for Transport Canberra and City Services.
Under ACT legislation, FOI requests must be given a decision and response within 20 working days, but the responsible Directorate may ask for additional time and negotiate a longer timeframe with the applicant. If the applicant does not accept the request for an extension, the request is classified as a ‘deemed refusal’.
In the last two years, there have been 16 deemed refusals from the CSD, with nine refused requests being lodged by two applicants.
An ACT government spokesperson told Region Media that applications can take anywhere from one to 20 months to resolve, depending on the size and complexity of the request.
Since changes to legislation in 2016, CSD has consistently had over 30 applications at any given time, with this figure reaching 52 simultaneous requests at its peak.
The Directorate currently has 30 requests under review, with nine of these applications being classified as extremely large, consisting of 16 or more files. The nine applications comprise of over 800 files and thousands of pages of notes.
“As a current mitigation strategy in managing such excessive FOI applications, CSD routinely requests a 45-working day extension for all FOI applications, and negotiates a staged release process to adequately manage workload,” CSD said.
“The staged release allows the applicant to receive their information continuously over a period. CSD has continued to review and modify FOI processes to identify efficiencies and to ensure resourcing is adequately focussed on core business.”