The revelation that the Education Directorate did not want details of investigations into serious teacher misconduct made public shows that while governments are full of good intentions regarding buzzwords like transparency, the instinctive response remains one of secrecy.
The ACT Ombudsman’s Review Decision of a Freedom of Information application that forced the Directorate to release the documents should be a wake-up call to all government agencies that the legislative safeguards are not there to be exploited and frustrate the intent of the Act.
As Acting Senior Assistant Ombudsman Symone Andersen says, there is a pro-disclosure bias in the Act and agency officers should take a broad approach in assessing applications, not the narrow one taken by the Education official who held off a release of the information, which had significant public interest, for almost a year.
For Ms Andersen, public interest and the associated need for governments to be accountable and transparent trumped concerns about impacts on ongoing investigations.
She did give weight to the issues of identifying the teachers concerned and their schools, not just for their privacy but to protect the students involved in some of the allegations.
The ACT Government, particularly the Minister, Yvette Berry, has a reputation for defending unconditionally the reputations of its schools and teachers, the great majority of whom are committed to education and their students.
That defensiveness and tendency to reputational management are reflected in this kind of response to an FOI request.
It is in the public interest to know what is happening in our schools and what action is being taken to weed out undesirable teachers and maintain professional standards.
Generally, the Ombudsman has done the government a favour in reminding its officers what the purpose and objectives of the FOI Act are.
The Education official may be just one individual, but it is unlikely they would have acted without reference to others within the Directorate or be unaffected by its culture.
It is also unlikely that the Minister or her office would have been unaware of the dispute, particularly as it involved a journalist from a significant media company.
Ms Andersen has had no quarrel with the Teacher Quality Institute passing on the FOI application to the Education Directorate, saying it was within the rules, but it does beg the question of whether an officer who could be seen to be independent would be more appropriate.
The decision should spur agencies to take another look at the FOI Act and refresh their training to reflect Ms Andersen’s thinking.
What the dispute raises is the amount of public interest information that is not being disclosed and the efforts to keep it that way.
These allegations, some involving police, should have been in the public domain a year ago, but it took a dogged journalist with resources at his back to make it happen.
It is acknowledged that not all government information could or should be made public and that the FOI Act should not be used for massive fishing expeditions, but open democratic government demands the spirit of the Act be upheld, not just the letter.