Feds wrestle with public information access

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Feds wrestle with public information access
Open sign

Among least troubling issues is charging for access to information

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has produced a survey of 191 federal agencies to determine the challenges they have meeting open government principles.

While the survey report (pdf) claims the results confirm that Australian Government agencies are embracing an open access and proactive disclosure culture, its findings suggest otherwise.

The OAIC said that “work is underway in most agencies” to make a greater amount of information easily discoverable and available via the web.

However, this is proving to be the most challenging principle to implement for almost a third of the agencies surveyed.

The survey found 30 percent of respondents have the most trouble with meeting public sector information (PSI) principle five, 'Providing useful and discoverable information'.

This principle requires that information be published online in a machine-readable, standards-based and open format; that high-quality metadata be attached for searchability; and that published data meets Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2 (WCAG 2.0).

Two out of every five agencies surveyed don't "routinely apply metadata to the information they publish".

"Lack of technical capacity in the agency may be a big factor," the OAIC highlighted in its brief report.

In addition, almost 25 percent of agencies were challenged by WCAG 2.0 compliance.

"A major area of difficulty is in converting special categories of information into an accessible text format (e.g. images, maps, dynamic content such as radar captures)," the OAIC said.

"Lack of technical expertise and the inherent difficulty in translating images to text are also contributing factors."

Other PSI principles that typically cause agencies grief include principle one (Open access to information as the default position) and principle four (Robust information asset management).

Agencies volunteered several reasons why principles were proving challenging to implement, including that:

  • existing systems for record keeping and information release aren't designed to support openness.
  • information management is siloed across branches and locations.
  • cultural change and more active internal sponsorship is required.
  • information is in legacy documents that need digitising.
  • it is difficult to identify information that can be voluntarily published.
  • budgetary restrictions limit the capacity of agencies to implement an open PSI culture.

On the other hand, less than five percent of agencies had difficulties in rolling out charging for access, offering transparent complaint procedures or engaging with the community.

The OAIC plans to release a full report, using the survey results, in November.

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