Government Information

This article by Stephen Bartos first appeared in the Public Sector Informant magazine, published with the Canberra Times today.

This version has been slightly edited, primarily to include links.

Government Information

It was two steps forward, one back for access to government information in the past few weeks.

Senator John Faulkner unveiled long hoped for reforms to Freedom of Information arrangements. He announced that Cabinet had already decided to abolish the practice of Ministers issuing conclusive certificates to refuse access to information, and Government plans to release an exposure draft of FOI reform legislation for public comment and consultation later this year containing proposals for implementing…broader FOI reforms.

In a speech to senior public servants earlier in the month Faulkner had also acknowledged that Less straightforward but nevertheless critically important is the task of changing the culture for decision makers charged with the responsibility of determining what documents should be released and what documents should not.

There could have been no starker illustration of cultural barriers to disclosure than events at the end of July involving the AFP, Immigration Department and others.

The judge conducting the inquiry into the Haneef case took the unusual step of announcing with regret that he could not make much of the relevant evidence public. You will recall Mohammed Haneef was a Queensland doctor who in 2007 was arrested and charged with terrorism, had his visa cancelled, was unfairly detained: a sorry tale from the last days of the previous government. The incoming government appointed former NSW Supreme Court judge, the Hon. John Clarke QC, to investigate the matter.

Just last week Clarke said in a media statement that he had advised the Attorney-General that it will not be feasible to make public as much information as was initially envisaged.

The obstruction to making the information public was the old reliable standby, national security classification. Although Clarke had been given a vast amount of material…by Commonwealth and State departments and agencies, little could be disclosed. A very high proportion, however, of the material from departments and agencies carries a security classification which limits the extent to which it can be shown to other people or disclosed generally. The originating agency alone has the authority to remove the classification…. and the Inquiry has not been given authority to publish those which are classified.

It was also evident from the statement that the other longstanding tactic employed by those with something to hide delay and obstruction had been employed to full effect. The judge put it polite terms, but his frustration was evident in remarks like: While the documents have, in the main, been delivered to the Inquiry, gaining access to the documents has involved a protracted period of negotiation and Faced with the need to advance the investigation, which has already been significantly delayed, I felt that I had no choice….

Greg Barns, former chief of staff to the former governments Finance Minister John Fahey, claimed in the online publication Crikey that the inquiry was being snowed by federal agencies keen to escape accountability for their actions. This criticism was echoed widely by other commentators.

But interestingly, Queensland academic Scott Prasser had predicted this sort of development, suggesting in May that experience suggests that when reputations, careers and organisational interests are at stake, voluntary co-operation quickly declines and noting that the inquiry had no powers to procure files, compel witnesses to give evidence and most importantly, it has no ability to afford protection to witnesses for the evidence they may provide.

Despite the new governments desire for more open government, it has become apparent that it is still ridiculously easy for any government agency to hide things it does not want the public to see.

The web should have made government information more accessible, but in one of the great ironies of our time, has in many cases impeded rather than assisted the search for really useful information. The volume of information online has increased vastly but correspondingly, so have the transaction costs involved in sorting out the useful from the merely distracting.

For some agencies, the internet provides the online equivalent of a tactic that I identify (and condemn) in my manual on governance which in the past was sometimes used by hostile departments for dealing with performance auditors: show them into a large room filled with all the files they could find, and say here it all is, go for it.

Auditors have statutory powers to overcome this sort of tactic; the general public has no such powers in relation to the proliferation of useless data.

There are agencies that make good use of online information, organise it logically and draw the readers attention to the most important items. There are others with a website that appears to be a vast dumping ground for anything that anyone in the agency can think of, including both the inconsequential and the irrelevant. The ideal approach to freedom of information legislation would be for it to become unnecessary because any information that the public needs is already freely available.

It is not an impossible dream. The City of New York is leading the way in online performance information with Citywide Performance Reporting providing regular statistics on service delivery. They come at an aggregate level, divided into themes like education, community services, economic development and public safety and then can be interrogated at a much deeper level by agency.

The setup is designed to allow the user to find the information that is relevant to their inquiry – that is, it is layered, with the ability to drill down deeper as needed, rather than the present everything as if it was equally important approach adopted by a number of Australian government agencies (at both Commonwealth and State level).

It is not only in relation to performance reporting that the New York information seems more freely available than anything in Australia; there is even a site called MayorStat that tracks the mayors staff and budget reductions over time. Imagine if our public service departments provided online tracking of similar information on staffing and resources. This is not to disparage existing and commendable information sources such as the monthly government financial statements: but to suggest that more could be done by each individual agency as well.

The challenge is not to do it simply by adding volume, but to make the information more interactive, more searchable, and better organised. The gold standard will be when we move beyond passive information to online engagement. IT consultants often talk about a continuum of information, interaction, transaction and transformation. The alliteration is all very attractive, but the reality is that this is not a logical sequence for government departments. Many have jumped over interaction; theres a fair bit of information (albeit often all trees and no wood), and in many cases transaction: you can make payments, order documents, apply for licences and so on via the Web. But there is precious little interaction in the sense of allowing people to provide input to which there is an actual, considered response.

Green Papers and other consultative processes may be a helpful in encouraging interaction. However if the release last month by AGIMO of a paper outlining the results of consultations on an Australian Government blog is any indication, there is a high degree of conservatism within the public service about the idea of opening up dialogue online. Despite overwhelming support for the concept AGIMO recommended: further consideration, a phased approach, a trial period, a post trial evaluation and numerous provisos on what an interactive forum should include. Small steps indeed.

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15 years ago

I don’t remember seeing reference in this context to a brilliant proposal by the government, announced some time ago.

When access is granted under the FOIA, it’s proposed, not only to grant access to the applicant, but also to publish on the Web the material to which access is being granted.

What a progressive step, increasing access to government information!

By a funny and no doubt unintended coincidence, it also removes any incentive for the mass media to make FOI requests, because they would have no lead time within which to produce an exclusive story based on any nuggets they find in any material to which they gain access.