Monday, March 28, 2011
Submission on the Disclosure Log Discussion Paper - Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
Submission on the Disclosure Log Discussion Paper
By Rick Snell
University of Tasmania
28 March 2011
This submission contains no confidential material.
In general I am supportive of most of the suggestions made in this Discussion Paper but would like to focus my attention on some particular points.
Q15. Should agencies and ministers adopt a practice of updating their disclosure log on a particular day each week or fortnight?
I see no need for agencies to be limited in this way.
Q16. What other steps should be adopted to ensure a consistent and suitable approach across government to disclosure log publication?
I listened with great interest to the comments made at the Information Law Conference by both agency personnel and journalists.
I have great sympathy for the case made by journalists, especially by Michael McKinnon, that the public interest in delaying general release by the Disclosure Log to enable requesting journalists to craft stories based on the released material, is relatively minor compared to the threat to the public interest in deterring or lessening the use by journalists of the Act.
In particular I note that a number of comments were made in side sessions, plenary events and in casual conversation as to how the 10 day discretion on disclosure logs would be deployed to the disadvantage of journalists by releasing the information very quickly.
I would suggest the Information Commissioner adopt a guideline whereby the applicant can make a request on whether any released information be delayed from general release up to the 10 day maximum period. The applicant making this request should justify where it is in the public interest for the Agency to delay updating the Log for this specified period.
Some applicants will be happy with immediate release, other applicants such as journalists, researchers or members of parliament or NGOs may have good reasons to have a period of exclusive access.
Where applicants do not specify a grace period then the Agency is free to publish at its discretion.
I would reject the suggestion that “Agencies and ministers could invite applicants to propose or negotiate the date of publication, provided this occurred within the ten working days stipulated in s 11C. The discretion would remain with the agency or minister to decide the actual date, but they would better understand any special concern of the applicant.” This option gives too much discretion to agencies and does nothing to prevent the manipulation of the timing to disadvantage particular applicants including, but not exclusively, journalists.
The alternative of allowing the applicant to nominate the grace period rewards and protects certain users and adds little extra burden or restrictions on agencies.
Q13. Is 12 months a reasonable period for agencies and ministers to make available, by website download or otherwise, information that is listed in a disclosure log register?
No this is far too short a time. For the initial period of the new reforms all Disclosure Logs should be available for a minimum of 2 years and then this issue should be re-examined in light of actual experience.
Q14. Should the disclosure log register indicate when information is likely to be removed from an agency’s or minister’s website, or the date on which information was in fact removed?
Q12. What steps can be taken by agencies to make information in a disclosure log easily discoverable, understandable, machine-readable and accessible for members of the public?
At the minimum the information should be in searchable format.
Agencies should be required to index with searchable key terms.
Q7. Should all agencies and ministers adopt the same template for their disclosure log?
Q8. Should a disclosure log contain the headings and information specified in the draft template annexed to this paper?
Q9. Should the disclosure log contain a summary of an FOI applicant’s request, whether the documents requested were provided in full or in part, and whether all information provided to the FOI applicant is made available under the disclosure log?
Q10. Should this information be provided in the disclosure log register or in some other manner (also see question 8 above)?
In the Disclosure Log or link to it.
Q11. Should it be open to an agency or minister to supplement a disclosure log entry with comment or explanation?
Monday, March 7, 2011
Nick Howard Student Administrative Law 204 and Comparative Administrative Law 609 UTAS 2010
As part of my undergraduate degree in law at the University of Tasmania, I took Associate Professor Rick
Snell's unit in comparative administrative law. In consultation with Rick, I wrote two essays concerning the new Right to Information laws in Australia. In particular, I researched as to how best the new FoI 2.0 regime could be evaluated. This proved to be a challenging task.
In the past it has been easier to evaluate Australian FoI through, inter alia, comparative analysis. Moreover, comparative criteria such as information polity, asymmetry and compliance analysis have proved, for the most part, useful. However, I have argued that with the advent of FoI 2.0, these criteria are no longer a viable and effective mechanism for evaluation.
One of the key concerns with a 2.0 system is that there is nothing in place to safeguard the citizenry from the dumping of unordered, unstructured and superfluous information on government websites, in order to comply with Right to Information legislation. How is the citizenry to know whether or not what is broadcast by the government is quality information in the public interest? In addition, as suggested by Professor Alsadair Roberts in Blacked Out, there is also a problem of supply and demand. How are governments to tell how many people want the information and what exactly to supply? There is a possible solution.
In Wiki Democracy: How technology can make government better, democracy stronger, and citizens more powerful, Professor Beth Simone Noveck coined a revolutionary idea: ordinary people through open source technology could make government decision-making more expert and more democratic. For Professor Noveck this is in the context of patents. Moreover, she argued that the public could assist in patent examination and 'collaborating groups of dedicated volunteers [could] help decide whether a particular patent should be granted'. This thesis could be modified and in turn employed as a mechanism for the evaluation of a 2.0 system.
A website could be created for the purpose of public collaboration. Thereon, the citizenry could post comments on and rate disclosed information pertaining to its comprehensiveness; usability; accessibility; and comprehensibility, for example. This would provide feedback for government departments and in turn improve the quality of the proactively released information. Consequently, these comments and ratings could be used in comparative analysis between two countries, for example Australia and New Zealand, to thus evaluate an FOI 2.0 regime.
After our discussions in Law 609 Nick and I continued to mull over this issue of trying to evaluate FOI 2.0 regimes. In part our thinking was influenced by the approach adopted in the Tasmanian Discussion Paper on FOI Strengthening Trust in Government: Everyone's Right to Know 2009 at page 12 that divided information into 4 categories that subsequently were incorporated in Section 12 of the Right to Information Act 2009 (Tas):
- Required disclosures
- Routine disclosures
- Active disclosures
- Assessed disclosures
These were defined in the Discussion Paper as:
Routine Disclosure; that is the voluntary publishing of Government Information of interest to the public, for example the Department of Health and Human Services Health Progress Chart and the Department of Education Schools Improvement Report.
Active Disclosure; that is the voluntary release of information upon request. This includes the release of information which holds no broad public interest, but there is no public detriment in providing the information on request. A large amount of information is released on a day to day basis because someone makes a request and agencies disclose it without reference to FoI.
Assessed Disclosure; that is the release of information after it has been assessed against defined limitations, the onus is on release unless an agency can prove that the release would be detrimental to the public interest.
The idea has been to create a system that integrates the traditional FOI 1.0 approach into an integrated information management system geared towards increasing the availability of timely high quality information to citizens.
Yet few mechanisms, or much attention, has been devoted to evaluating whether this is taking place. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has put out a discussion paper about information principles (http://www.oaic.gov.au/publications/papers.html) but as Peter Timmins points out it is silent on how agencies establish their performance on achieving improved information access other than crude quantity measures (see http://foi-privacy.blogspot.com/2011/02/office-of-australian-information.html)
Currently, at UTAS and in collaboration with Dr Rhonda Breit from the School of Journalism at University of Queensland, we are looking at ways of utilizing the ideas of Beth Noveck and the initial work by Nick Howard to start this type of assessment.
One of my volunteers, Kat Burela, has developed an audit template to evaluate the ease of accessing information about the Right to Information Act on Tasmanian Government web sites.
We will ask reviewers to evaluate various Tasmanian government web sites in terms of accessibility of their information about Right to Information. The following categories have been used:
The access point discloses the link provided, and the number of subsequent links required gaining information (in the form of text, file or FAQs).
The target audience depicts the type of information provided (whether to inform the public of their rights or the departments of their duties and obligations.
The overall ranking each site has received is a personal ranking given against a prepared questionnaire.
Type of content
Accessibility of content
We are developing a SurveyMonkey survey which will allow volunteers to both rank/audit the government web sites (in terms of FOI) and the survey mechanism we have developed.
We will then move onto the more difficult task of trying to evaluate whether post Right to Information there has been a qualitative information improvement in availability of government information.