Q&A: Australia's Information Commissioner, John McMillan

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Q&A: Australia's Information Commissioner, John McMillan
John McMillan, Information Commissioner

On FOI, privacy, reuse rights and not stepping on too many toes.

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He is charged with convincing Federal Government agencies to make more information accessible, oversees a team of 85 information and privacy professionals, and knows not to tread on the Attorney General's toes. But who is Australia's new Information Commissioner, John McMillan? John Hilvert endeavours to find out.

iTnews: Who is the Office of the Information Commissioner and what have you set out to do?

John McMillan, Information Commissioner [JM]:  We are launching a revitalised Freedom of Information Act which promises to provide people with information speedily at low cost.

But the second big change is emerging technology and open Government principles.

Technology places real pressures on Government in terms of how they interact with people and the expectations people have of Government. It's something of an unstoppable revolution.

Once you do things via technology, there is no turning back. Once you publish a red book (guide to new Government Ministers on their portfolio), everybody has to do it. So that's where we'll get a lot of activity - focusing on how Government will use technology innovatively for better records management and disclosure and publication online.

iTnews: Who will this drive this?

JM: It's being driven by a number of agencies: Finance, AGIMO [The Australian Government Information Management Office], the Department of Innovation. We're expecting to have a role in driving it. Just what our role is, is a little undefined, which is why we put out our issues paper to step into the arena and indicate we have a role to play in this space as well. Seventy percent of Government transactions with the public are online now. They are aiming for ninety percent.

That completely redefines Government does its business.

Once somebody is online they want an answer. They want it quickly. They don't want any messing around. They want to go beyond a simple dialogue and explore the options themselves.

The third big area is integrating FOI and Privacy rights. We take a different approach to the way information in Government is managed. There has long been a tension between FOI and privacy. There's no doubt privacy has been used as an excuse by agencies to prevent disclosure of information.

This is an opportunity to resolve that tension.

iTnews: Were all the FOI reforms sought passed in the new legislation?

JM: The initial proposals on fees was that journalist and non-Government groups would get the first five hours of decision-making time free and the others would get one.

There was a debate about whether someone was a journalist or not for the purposes of the Act. They resolved that by giving everybody FOI free for the first 5 hours. That was decided when the regulations were published Thursday, last  week. It was as recent as that.

iTnews: What are the typical fees?

JM: There used to be an application fee of $30. That's gone. Decision-making time is $20 an hour as previously. But now the first five hours are free. Search and retrieval time is unchanged at  $15 an hour. They give an estimate as well, usually.

The other thing about the charges provisions was the public interest waiver of charges between people and agencies.That will operate differently, because one of the new requirements is a disclosure log where an agency or Minister - within tendays of disclosing information under the FOI Act - has to publish it online or with a link or description from May 1 next year. There are exceptions for privacy or business.

It will be a lot easier to mount a public interest waiver argument. For example, some agencies have published their red book online - advice for an incoming Government - for free. (The "blue book" is if the Opposition gets in).

There have been FOI requests for that. Some agencies - Treasury and Finance have published theirs online. Some agencies have imposed an FOI fee for access. That was before the current Act came into force, though.

It will be interesting to see what happens now.

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