12 September 2022

Heat on government over speed of handling freedom of information requests

| Lottie Twyford
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Chris Steel

Special Minister of State Chris Steel was questioned by Canberra Liberals MLA Peter Cain over the government’s management of Freedom of Information requests. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Wait times for Freedom of Information requests have blown out as the government continues to consider recommendations made in a review of the system published in 2020.

In budget estimates hearings on Tuesday (30 August), Shadow Attorney-General Peter Cain said the average return time for the FOIs the opposition had submitted was 40 days.

That’s double the 20-day statutory timeframe for the return of an FOI request.

But Mr Cain said some departments took even longer to process FOIs.

The Community Services Directorate (CSD) had an average return time of 19 weeks and Environment Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD) took around 30 weeks.

Mr Cain said he had heard reports some FOI staff were required to work overtime and on weekends to clear the backlog.

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The ACT’s Freedom of Information Act only came into effect in January 2018.

A review of that Act conducted by Deloitte and published in 2020 found the more complex FOIs were leading to staff members working on a single request for months at a time.

It also found a marked increase in the number of requests for information declined.

The Deloitte review, which was only made public late last year following an FOI request, recommended making temporary FOI processing roles permanent and using technology to reduce the workload burden on staff.

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In estimates, Mr Cain questioned whether Special Minister of State Chris Steel had read the review, to which he responded he was “aware of [it] and had read through it”.

He said the recommendations contained in that review were being considered as part of an “ongoing approach to look at how we can streamline FOI processes”.

But he didn’t know when a formal response to that review would be submitted.

Mr Steel said agencies endeavoured to meet their statutory requirements but acknowledged resourcing was an issue.

He said that issue was being looked at by the government and the directors-general of each of the directorates on an “agency by agency” approach.

“We are actively working on a piece of policy work [on that topic]. It is a whole-of-government responsibility and all the agencies will need to look at how they respond to those resourcing issues.”

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There is no centralised processing point for FOI requests. Instead, they are disaggregated across the directorates.

Mr Cain has called for a more centralised system to be put in place. The Shadow Attorney-General also questioned whether discrepancies across the directorates related to what information could be released.

Officials said the teams across the directorates did work together to share good practices and a downside to a central processing point would be to remove the “bespoke” and “tailored” way each directorate could respond to a request.

The hearing was also told the Ombudsman’s latest report on FOI processing times showed 97 per cent of requests had been decided within time.

However, it was acknowledged this did not correlate to the 20-day timeframe having been met. It could have meant an extension was agreed to.

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Officials took on notice a question about exactly how many staff were working as FOI officers across the government and how many had been trained with specific FOI capabilities.

In a statement, Mr Cain accused Mr Steel of fostering a “culture of secrecy”.

“The government has proven time and time again their contempt for transparency; it clearly does not value accountability,” he said.

“The FOI process is a linchpin of transparency [it] will not prioritise.”

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