Information not so free, students find

Published on NowUC on the 10th of May, 2011.

Read on NowUC

By ALICE MORRISSEY AND RACHEL PACKHAM

A classroom full of anxious third year journalism students are waiting nervously for their tutor.

“Did you get a response,” blurts one.

“No, I didn’t,” whines another.

A chorus of relieved students pipe up, “Neither did I!”

By the time the tutor enters the room a gang of irritated and self-righteous students await.

“It’s just too hard.”

After almost 10 hours of lectures and tutorials dedicated to the importance of the Freedom of Information Act and just how to put a request together, no one is impressed. Their new-found skill is not an all-access pass.

A class survey was completed by 22 of the 37 participating students. It revealed that just under a third of the sample were satisfied with the information they received as a result of submitting an FOI request.

Out of the seven submissions to a federal department, only one FOI request was successful. Those who were unhappy with the outcome of their request were either refused information, did not receive a response or were redirected to related (but less specific) information that was already publicly available.

The Federal Freedom of Information Act was introduced in Australia in 1982, followed promptly by similar acts within the states and territories “to promote disclosure of information held by Government” at both the federal and local level.

In 2010 the first reforms to the federal act were enacted to “put a greater emphasis on the proactive publication of information by government agencie in an attempt to change what has been perceived as a culture of information protection by departments and “to make the provision of access to information the norm, unless there are compelling public interest reasons that argue against disclosure”.

A 161 page document released in Dec 2010 by the office of the Australian information commissioner to help guide department personnel highlights the importance of the FOI Act.

“FOI enhances the transparency and accountability of policy making, administrative decision making and government service delivery,” it said.

“A community that is better informed can participate more effectively in the nation’s democratic processes.

“Information gathered by government, at public expense, is a national resource and should be available more widely to the public.”

Dion Pretorius was one of the successful few when he lodged his request with Territory and Municiple Services (TAMS).

“I received [the documents] couple of weeks later that had about 70 pages of info, I was charged no fees and was really impressed by the comprehensive data provided,” he said.

Mr Pretorius was so pleased with the process, he lodged an FOI request for another story.

“After going through the process, I definitely think it was worthwhile,” he said. “I actually ended up lodging another FOI request to [The University of Canberra] about the winter term in search of another story, for that one I received a response and the documents within a week.”

Kimberly Granger lodged her FOI request with the Department of Family, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

Ms Granger received several emails from the department asking her to reword her request, define certain words and make her request more specific.

“I wouldn’t consider my FOI request successful,” she said.

“The process was straightforward to start off with, however when you are asked to start defining specific words and asked for more information for some things and less for others it gets difficult.”

Ms Granger is not in a hurry to make her next FOI request.

I don’t think this process is worthwhile, unless you have a specific document in mind. Also, the time it takes to be processed is not worthwhile for a journalist. News must be current, but waiting 30 days for a document is just ridiculous,” she said.

Grace Keyworth lodged her FOI request with the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).

Ms Keyworth’s case is an example of the hurdles that still exist in the FOI request process, contradictory to the 2010 changes to the Act.

“In total, I sent seven emails over six weeks and participated in a teleconference,” she said.

Ms Keyworth was also asked to pay $360 dollars for the 17 documents totalling 60 pages of information.

She received a breakdown of the costs. It included “15 hours of search and retrieval time, six hours of decision making time plus printing and postage”.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority waived the fee on Ms Keyworth’s request, as she is a student.

After Ms Keyworth’s time and effort, she did not receive anything that wasn’t already publicly available.

“All of that information was already available on MDBA’s website,” she said.

Within the exercise many students questioned whether government departments should charge fees for granting FOI requests, it’s been the subject of controversy recently in Australia.

FOI requests for personal information made by individuals are never subject to fees. However journalists are often charged for the process.

It is not out of the ordinary for departments to charge large fees for FOI requests. Last month the Sydney Morning Herald reported (April, 2011) an FOI request, submitted by a Fairfax reporter to The Department of Immigration and Citizenship would cost them $53,093.

The ACT departments have proven to be more lenient regarding fees.

In 2005, ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope said, “Freedom of Information does not mean the same as ‘free information’ … The ACT’s FOI charging regime is comparable to those of the States and compares favourably with the Commonwealth scheme.”

However, the Auditor-General’s Office has estimated that it cost the ACT Government $4.5 to $5 million to provide FOI services each year and In 2008-09 only $280 worth of fees were taken.

In line with this, not one of the students who lodged an FOI request with an ACT department were asked to pay a fee.

From Sunday of this week the federal reforms also make online publication of all released information compulsory.

As part of The Information Publication Scheme, departments will need to upload any documents released due to an FOI request within 10 days. The department websites also now need to publish nine categories worth of basic information such as agency structure and functions to “build a stronger foundation for greater openness and transparency in government”.

The Freedom of Information Act lists creating an informed public to “participate more effectively in the nation’s democratic process” as one of its premier goals. But unless those tasked with allowing access to government information follow the attitude shift outlined in the 2010 reforms from a culture of “why should we” to “why shouldn’t we”, the only way the FOI act engages us in the democratic process is by successfully wrapping us up in bureaucratic red tape too.

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