Senator John Faulkner’s announcement of changes to Australia’s Freedom of Information (FOI) laws is long overdue, and his approach promises to address a number of concerns about FOI in Australia.
First, addressing the egregious abuse of the ‘cabinet in confidence’ provision, exemplified by the wheeling of trolleys of documents in and out of the cabinet room, is a major step forward, as is the removal of conclusive certificates. However, simply reducing the legal loopholes available for abuse by government and the public service is only part of the solution.
The provisions for increasing the culture of disclosure are also to be welcomed. Public information should default to the public, not be locked behind financial, legal and bureaucratic walls. FOI should not be the sole preserve of investigative journalists with research budgets, but an affordable option for everyone –– journalists, bloggers, students, researchers, web developers, activists and citizens. The reduction of application fees and the introduction of charge-free decision periods are also welcome changes. The inclusion of a five-hour free period for NGOs and journalists is also welcome, although I would ask that the definition of ‘journalist’ be as broad as possible. The intent to publish –– in any forum –– should be enough.
The provision to declare someone vexatious is an important addition to deal with the inevitable increase in requests; however, this power must be handled carefully. The inclusion of an appeals process for this power is an important counterbalance.
Transparency is not enough unless it is accompanied by a commitment to open access and usability. Once an FOI request is granted, there is no reason for it to not be made available to the public. This inclusion therefore is of great interest and should be applauded. From the FOI Reformed Companion Guide:
The Government recognises the value to the community in the pro-active dissemination of government information.
… Agencies and Ministers will be required to publish information that has been disclosed in response to access requests under Part III of the FOI Act within 10 working days of the initial disclosure (subject to limitations to protect personal and business information).
The work of the Government Information Licensing Framework and Creative Commons Australia around the licensing of government data should play a part in the FOI review. Creative Commons has done some very valuable work with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and there is no reason a similar open licensing or public domain approach shouldn’t be used for data released under FOI.
I also recommend the use of open application programming interfaces (APIs) for government data, so that innovative government transparency organisations can build on top of these. Department heads should give Open Australia a call to talk about how to integrate their data output best with open standards. This move towards accessibility should continue across government departments, and integrate with the proposed changes to australia.gov.au.