18 May 2011

The Australian Government’s commitment to open government will become more evident this week.  Provisions in the Freedom of Information Act which came into force on 1 May require agencies to publish a record of information released under the Act.  Details should now start appearing on agency websites.  This will avoid any exclusivity being given to a person making the request. An information request indicates that material is of public interest and should therefore be made accessible to all.

Agencies are required to publish on their websites:

  • a log of information released in response to individual FOI requests. This must be published within 10 days of releasing the material.
  • an Information Publication Scheme (IPS)  containing information in documents to which the agency routinely gives access in response to FOI requests. The purpose of proactive release is to lessen the number of information requests made to agencies.

Where information could be published on both the disclosures log and the IPS, agencies are expected to ensure the material is linked. Many agencies, including the Prime Minister’s Department, the Treasury and the Australian Public Service Commission, are using a common logo on their websites to highlight the disclosures log and the IPS.

An interesting consequence will be the effect on the media, as they will have a lead time of only 10 days to publish requested material before it is disclosed on the log. An agency could immediately disclose the request and undermine the scoop potential for an investigative journalist Information that one part of the media may have had to pay an agency to prepare for release, will be available at no charge after 10 days to anyone.

This Australian initiative has no equivalent in New Zealand.  In Nicola White’s 2007 research “Free and Frank – Making the Official Information Act Work Better”, she identified four possible courses of action to improve the availability of information, involving varying degrees of coercion on agencies. None has been taken up.  We are not taking “the next step in freedom of information…to restore trust and confidence in the political process and public administration in New Zealand”. The obligation that “we must treat information with care and use it only for proper purposes” is explained by the State Services Commissioner in “Understanding the code of conduct” with an emphasis on secure management of information rather than the earlier provision of section 4 –

“(a) to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of new Zealand in order-

  • (i) to enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and
  • ii) to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials,—

and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand..”