At exactly the time late last year when the Wikileaks saga was occupying seemingly endless media column centimetres, important amendments were implemented to the Commonwealth’s Freedom of Information regime. They flowed from a reform process implemented by Senator John Faulkner. Their commencement attracted almost no attention in the mainstream media. I wrote about the amendments the previous year and expressed the opinion that the reforms they contained were welcome if incomplete.
Specialist FOI blogger Peter Timmins writes about these issues all the time but otherwise FOI doesn’t get all that much attention in the populist media or the blogosphere, although Fairfax has a FOI editor in Matthew Moore and Murdoch has Michael McKinnon in a similar role. Yet effective official FOI mechanisms are much more critical to a functioning liberal democracy than strange individuals like Julian Assange or the random public sector leaks they publish.
The biggest omission from the Faulkner reforms in my opinion was that it failed to address the often very high cost to FOI applicants. The Act allows departments and agencies to charge applicants the cost of retrieving and perusing documents the subject of a FOI request, and that might amount to many thousands of dollars if the request isn’t carefully framed. Moreover, s 24 allows agencies to refuse to comply with a FOI request which involves an “unreasonable diversion” of the agency’s resources.
However, these problems could be relatively easily fixed, as my previous post argued:
Requiring all departments and agencies to invest in and maintain “state-of-the-art” document management systems would greatly reduce the cost and time involved in processing FOI applications, even ones where the application criteria are broad enough to encompass thousands of documents. If all government documents (inwards and outwards) were digitised and indexed by a Google-like searchbot, and also indexed on creation by humans against obvious basic non-disclosure criteria (created for dominant purpose of legal proceedings; Cabinet document; obtained in express situation of confidentiality etc.), then the time for retrieving and assessing even very large FOI applications, and therefore the costs charged to applicants, would be vastly reduced. Moreover, such systems would deliver numerous other efficiencies and cost savings to government entirely unrelated to FOI.
I’m interested in Troppo readers’ thoughts on such a reform. It seems to me that it would in many ways be what Nicholas Gruen refers to as “low-hanging fruit” of policy reform. I implemented an incomplete version of the digital “paperless” office in my own legal practice before I closed it down to enter academia, but I didn’t really get far enough to gain a clear idea of the obstacles and opportunities it might involve for large public sector organisations. No doubt that would involve a range of information security and document integrity issues that are much less problematic for a small private firm.