Budget cuts slow work at NSW information commission

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Budget cuts slow work at NSW information commission

No time left to champion citizen’s information rights.

Employee numbers at the NSW Information and Privacy Commission (IPC) have slipped below the bare minimum that the former information commissioner warned was required to meet the agency’s legislative requirements.

Deirdre O’Donnell, who retired as Information Commissioner in July, wrote to the NSW parliamentary committee overseeing the IPC’s operations earlier this year with the “firm view” that the agency needed a minimum of 28.5 full-time equivalent staff to “fulfil our legislative obligations as an accountability agency that also champions citizen’s privacy and access to government information rights.”

An operational review in 2012 sparked a voluntary redundancy program designed to return the agency's budget operating statement into surplus over the forward estimates.

The IPC’s 2012-13 annual report, released last week, reveals the program has resulted in staff numbers dropping below O’Donnell’s threshold, to just 25 compared to 33 the previous year.

Prior to her departure, O’Donnell said cuts had already forced the organisation to roll back its preventative and educational programs aimed at championing better information management in the state, according to a report tabled this week.

“In response to the budget cuts of late last year, we focused our efforts and attentions on our core business functions, which largely represent our reactive work,” she said.

“Our proactive work around promotion of rights and education about our legislation will now become much more targeted and will be enhanced by collaboration with key partners, such as our peers in other jurisdictions or other oversight agencies.”

The IPC is charged with keeping an eye on the collection and management of citizen information by the NSW public sector and health organisations, as well as administering freedom of information legislation.

The annual report also shows that in 2012-13 the agency faced an increasing number of enquiries from members of the public, but managed to resolve ten less privacy complaints than in the previous year.

Delays in the roll-out of a new integrated case management system at the IPC have only compounded its staffing struggles.

The IPC engaged Resolve Software for the solution in 2012, but the 18 month roll-out period meant the newly established organisation was without this electronic capability for much longer than originally anticipated.

“The delay in acquiring and implementing our CMS has meant that inefficient and complex processes were followed to deal with demand. These were necessary but far from optimum,” O’Donnell told the parliamentary committee.

“Now that the CMS is in place, I expect to see much better, quicker and more consistent processing of complaints. Reports from the system will also help us identify patterns of demand (such as for particular agencies) and address these more strategically,” she said.

The IPC also expressed some consternation at the limitations NSW law placed on its ability to respond to public concerns, including those around CCTV and drones.

“Technology is imposing challenges which were not thought of in 1998 when the [Privacy and Personal Information Protection] Act was passed,” Privacy Commissioner Dr Elizabeth Coombs said.

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