Increasing FOI demands are challenging resources across the public sector
Public access to government information is a right – not a privilege. So said Catherine Fletcher, WA Information Commissioner, speaking at the recent Objective Collaborate conference in Perth.
Learn how recordkeeping is essential to managing increased workloads from FOI demands, and how government can fulfill its obligations to deliver this public resource for public benefit. And in doing so, demonstrate accountability for the decision made in government.
Freedom of information (FOI) is often viewed as a foundation for democracy. Information held by government is a public resource to be used for public benefit and the people have a right to be informed about government operations. Freedom of information allows individuals to participate in matters that concern them personally, or their communities. It also keeps those responsible for government decisions more accountable to the public.
This blog is part of a series featuring presentations by thought leaders, exploring the interplay of digital government, open government and information governance.
See related articles below.
Dealing with a high volume of requests
As the volume of requests and the variety of records increases, councils and agencies are feeling that FOI can lead to an unreasonable diversion of resources and add significantly to existing workloads. Analysis of federal government data showed a cost blowout to $60 million and the number of decisions sent for review climbing by 80% in the past four years.
“Our goal, across the public sector, is proactive open government by design,” says Fletcher. “There are success stories, but we are a long way from mainstream adoption.”
Fletcher identified that increasing efficiency without diverting substantial resources away from other operations is a key challenge facing government agencies. She noted this is exacerbated by the increased amount and complexity of information collected and held by government at a time when privacy concerns are high.
Managing increasingly complex information
The number of requests is increasing, and so too are the number of requests where access is refused or where documents cannot be found. One of the challenges in meeting these requests is that agencies are dealing with a large volume of different types of electronic documents. For example, information may be held in non-traditional formats such as CCTV footage, tweets, blog posts, SMS or WhatsApp messages. Many of these may not be captured and managed according to recordkeeping policies, making them difficult to search.
The Commissioner highlighted the relationship between the FOI Act 1992 and the State Records Act 2000. Both allow access to government information under different circumstances and contain offences for unauthorised destruction of records. Perhaps more importantly, the recordkeeping principles in the State Records Act ensure information can be found and made accessible when requested.
Putting people at the centre of FOI
The release of information requires a timely and coordinated effort by individuals and teams across agencies and with third-party organisations. In their responses to such requests, government organisations must also balance rights of access with the need to protect sensitive content.
“Gathering information from different teams, who may be on different networks, can be a big challenge,” says Brian Chapman, Senior Business Development Manager at Objective Corporation. “Having a secure workspace where documents can be easily collated and automatically captured into the recordkeeping system saves time.”
Objective Connect provides secure workspaces for collating and capturing documents. It also supports private spaces where an FOI officer can exchange messages and share documents with the applicant. Across jurisdictions, statistics show most requests come from people asking for their own personal information so it’s vital to respond through a secure channel.
Chapman emphasises the most significant measure of success for FOI is customer satisfaction. “Responding quickly is part of it,” he says, “but it’s also important to engage with the applicant to understand the information they’re looking for and build trust. You need a way to do that securely in real time, and to keep records of those conversations, without slowing everything down.”
Objective Corporation is researching the ways organisations manage and respond to requests for information and the role of information governance in building a culture of openness. The Open By Design research project also gives organisations the opportunity to benchmark themselves against peers and measure progress over time. It may highlight areas for improvement, savings or benefits realisation.