Technology drives FOI reform proposal

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Technology drives FOI reform proposal
Access to information should be faster, simpler, cheaper

Bring charges in line with IT advances.

Australian Information Commissioner John McMillan has recommended changes to the way agencies charge for electronically-driven administrative processes for Freedom of Information requests.

In a report released yesterday [pdf], McMillan called for search, retrieval, decision-making and electronic processing fees to be standardised, eliminating the variable costs charged under the current regime.

Under the proposal, agencies would not charge for the first five hours of "processing" a request. 

A flat rate of $50 would be chargeable if an FOI request required between five and ten hours of processing, after which time a charge of $30 an hour would be applicable, up to a limit of 40 hours.

Agencies would be given the power to knock back FoI requests if it was believed the request would take more than 40 hours to process.

"The same processing charge should apply to the various administrative activities that are part of FOI processing," the report stated.

"Combining those activities into a single processing rate will simplify the charges framework and make it easier for agencies to administer and respond promptly to applicants."

Certain electronically-driven processes would be exempt and charged at "actual cost" to an agency - such as "if an applicant requires information to be provided through recordable media or a portable storage device such as a disk or USB drive".

McMillan also urged agencies to take advantage of advances in IT and to reflect that in any additional processing charges.

"Transcripts of a sound recording, shorthand or other similar medium are presently charged at $4.40 a page," the report noted.

"Advances in information technology (for example, voice recognition software) may make it easier and cheaper to provide transcripts."

McMillan recommended that transcription services be charged "at cost" or at a limit of $30 an hour, to keep a lid on costs.

New data request channel

A major recommendation of the report is to encourage agencies to create an informal channel for people to request certain types of Government-held data - such as personal information - without having to go through a formal FOI process.

The recommendation is underpinned by the notion that governments typically record data in IT systems rather than in formal documents - a major shift since FOI legislation came into effect in 1982.

"Government agencies now store most information electronically and respond to information requests in more flexible ways," the report stated.

"Responses are often provided by collating data from various sources and providing it in a new document, frequently by email.

"The FOI Act should reflect that in many instances a person is essentially seeking information and the form of access is a secondary consideration.

"The right to ask for a particular document should not be the primary means of ensuring public access to information."

McMillan said that an Administrative Access regime would - at minimum - allow applicants and agencies to discuss data requests before a formal FOI lodgement, enabling the applicant to narrow their criteria and potentially save money.

No processing charge would apply to an Administrative Access request. However, if the applicant was unsatisfied with the response, they could escalate it to an FOI application for free.

Applicants who bypassed an Administrative Access regime and went straight for FOI could be hit with a $50 application fee.

Establishing an Administrative Access scheme would be non-compulsory. 

"An Administrative Access scheme will be more suited to some agencies and to some types of requests than others," the report noted.

"For example, a small agency that deals regularly with a known client base may find that it would be unproductive or confusing to create an Administrative Access scheme to operate alongside the FOI Act."

The report cited 2010-11 statistics that only 61 of 240 agencies received more than 10 FOI requests that year as evidence of the number of agencies that might operate an Administrative Access scheme.

Agencies that decided against running the scheme, however, would not be able to charge for FOI requests, under McMillan's proposal.

The Federal Government is now considering the recommendations.

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