Putting the freedom back into FOIs
A recently released paper1 analysing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act claims that Australia is in the middle of a “Freedom of Information Crisis”.
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act 1982 allows Australians to request access to government held information. This could mean information held about individuals or about government policies and decisions, with part of the Act’s aim being to increase public participation in Government processes. Just as it sounds, the Act is vital to our law and rights as Australians.
Australia’s FOI crisis
According to the report, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is “increasingly burdened” by the weight of its FOI work and needs additional resourcing to fulfil its roles.
But that is not a complete surprise. According to InnovateAus.com2, in the last year there has been a 40% increase in FOI cases, and since the 2018 financial year, a 419% increase in FOI complaints.
Key problems identified in the 2011-2021 period within the Centre of Public Integrity report include:
- FOI requests responded to outside the statutory 30-day period have doubled
- FOI requests over 90 days late have increased over 10-fold
- The percentage of FOI requests refused completely has increased 52 per cent
- The percentage of FOI requests granted in full has fallen 30 per cent
And as with most things, there is a cost of this.
Angelene Falk, Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner has reportedly warned the Albanese government that her office “cannot be expected to keep doing more work without an increase in funding”.3
This funding would be on top of the $1 million per year in extra funding for the appointment of an FOI commissioner within the 2021-2022, and the $67 million funding lifeline for the National Archives of Australia4.
With Section 3(4) of the Act outlining that the functions and powers of the Act are designed to provide public access to information ‘promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost’5, it seems we have a way to go. There is no denying that the cost of FOI requests is becoming untenable.
The real cost of the crisis
One of the biggest pain points in managing any FOI request is the vast array of data types and sources that need to be accessed and aggregated to fulfil the request.
The variety of information that someone can request is wide. Documents, emails, notes, recordings, chats, calendar invites, social media posts, images, videos… the list goes on. Often held in a variety of different storage and communication platforms, many with unique formats and access requirements.
As most people working in government will attest – a FOI request may often come into one mailbox, but it isn’t a one-person job. The request often means many individuals searching for, collating and supplying documents from various platforms to the manager of the request, who then must further collate, sometimes redact individual documents, and then fulfil the request.
Not only can this lead to requests being responded to outside of statutory timelines, it follows that the longer a request takes, the more tax-payer dollar are spent to fulfil it.
Yet the true cost is not simply monetary.
The FOI issues lead to restriction of, and delay to, access government-held information which reduces the ability for Australian individuals to hold policy-makers accountable and participate in government policy making.
It is undeniably in the public’s best interest, and that of individual government workers, to reduce the demand of FOI requests.
Fast-track FOI requests with Frisk.
Utilising the Frisk platform with the Document Fetcher extension, your department can search and locate documents related to a chosen query and download all of these in a single operation.
The Frisk platform will provide your department with ability to:
- Benefit from a powerful combination of artificial intelligence and natural linguistic programming
- Integrate and search data from tools such as (Micro Focus) Content Manager, Microsoft Sharepoint (and extensions), Objective and more
- Accurately and efficiently search all data types including structured (document and record management systems, CRM etc), semi-structured (word docs, emails, calendar invites etc) and unstructured (PDFs, design files, video or audio files etc) data types
- Utilise Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to ensure that all text, even if its image-based, is searchable
- Configure search string length to your department’s requirements
- Create a collection of search results from one or many searches, when a FOI request spans more than one topic or project
- Export all located documents and files into a ZIP file in a single click
This technology is currently being deployed into South Australian Government agencies to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the Freedom of Information document gathering process.
Could your department benefit from some freedom from the FOI burden?
1 The Centre for Public Integrity August 2022, Delay and Decay: Australia’s Freedom of Information Crisis, accessed September 19, 2022 https://publicintegrity.org.au/research_papers/delay-and-decay-australias-freedom-of-information-crisis/
2 Justin Hendry 5 September 2022, OAIC resourcing inadequate as FOI burden grows: report accessed September 19, 2022 https://www.innovationaus.com/oaic-resourcing-inadequate-as-foi-burden-grows-report/
3 Sean Parnell 2 September 2022, ‘Unable to keep up’: Information Commissioner issues budget warning accessed September 19, 2022 https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/unable-to-keep-up-information-commissioner-issues-budget-warning-20220902-p5betk.html
4 Denham Sadler 22 March 2022, FOI Commissioner and Archives box appointed by govt accessed September 19, 2022 https://www.innovationaus.com/foi-commissioner-and-archives-boss-appointed-by-govt/
5 Federal Register of Legislation, Freedom of Information Act 1982 accessed September 19, 2022, https://www.legislation.gov.au/Series/C2004A02562