Conspiracy theories abound about who was behind the shooting of US President J.F. Kennedy. Was it just an angry dissident acting alone as we have been told? Or was it an FBI/CIA plot?
Those who get caught up in these theories eagerly awaited the release of the FBI files under the freedom of information policies of America that set a time limit on sensitive government documents.
The JFK Assassination documents number over 5 million pages, and 25 000 interviews were done. However, not all of the information has been released (national security reasons). And so, the die-hard theorists comb through the disclosed texts claiming to find obscure clues and “shiny objects” that keep the conspiracies alive.
Most requests for information are not on the scale of the JFK files, but the question remains:
Does the public have a right to know?
Why Do We Have A Right To Access Publicly Held Information?
The Foundational Principles: Human Rights, Transparency, Accountability and Trust
International bodies such as UNESCO see access to public information as a basic human right. (http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/freedom-of-expression/freedom-of-information/about/)
UNESCO: “Freedom of Information is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognised by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).”
Government employees are public servants, and they serve the people of their country. Their decisions affect the citizens under their care, and therefore, they are accountable to them and ought to build trust by being transparent.
By enforcing transparency in government, it makes it harder for officials to get away with fraud and corruption, especially if the system is digitally controlled with secure systems.
Beyond the fundamental reasons for freedom of information, there are practical benefits, such as it helps with economic decisions, social development choices and legal cases.
The Freedom of Information Act
To formalise the ideals of FOI in Australia, the Freedom of Information Act was brought in. This act lays out the principles, rights, obligations and limits around public access to information. (https://www.digitalhealth.gov.au/about-the-agency/freedom-of-information-foi)
Australian Digital Health Agency: “The two main objectives of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 are to provide access to, and encourage proactive disclosure of, information created and held by the Commonwealth Government and its agencies.”
What types of information fall under FOI?
Basically, any physical or digital written documents, video, audio, photographs and images are included, and it applies to:
- Government departments, government agencies, local councils and ministers
- Public hospitals
- Public schools and tertiary institutions
- Statutory authorities
Information Publication Scheme (IPS) and Disclosure Log
The Information Publication Scheme was included in the Freedom of Information Act in 2010 and is overseen by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).
It was set up to encourage a transparent, inclusive and open system, and extends across all government agencies and departments, who are obliged to disclose information on their websites, e.g. annual reports.
When making a formal request for information, you need to check first if it is already in the public domain via the IPS.
Once a request for information has been processed and the case closed, the agency handling the case should then add the document to the IPS and the Disclosure Log to make it readily available for the next request.
What Are Our Rights As Citizens?
What do we as the public have a right to access?
The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to make an FOI request to government departments and agencies.
On the flip side, you also have a right to have your personal, private information protected from public scrutiny.
The Privacy Act ensures your right to privacy, for example, your employment records, online privacy, surveillance, and other personal information being seen by others.
It is within your rights to request access to, for example:
- Your personal information (You can also ask for your personal information to be corrected if needs be.)
- Policy-making documents
- Decision-making documents
- Appeal a denied request
What Are The Obligations Of Government Departments and Agencies?
The government departments and agencies are obliged to allow access to and to publish information that is in the interest of the public (unless it falls under the exempt list) as this information is fundamentally owned by the public.
They are also obliged to process requests swiftly and at no or little cost. To ensure quick access to documents, the government needs to fulfil the request within 30 days, unless there is a good reason for an extension.
Accurate and Fair
Furthermore, the government is obliged to be accurate and fair in handling publicly held documents – they are the custodians of this resource and carry the responsibility of managing it well, especially as they are subject to statutory obligations. You can appeal/review if your request has been denied, or lodge an official complaint if you feel it is necessary.
What Is Exempt Under The FOI Act?
Exemptions are there:
- To protect personal and business privacy (e.g. private contact information, trade secrets, documents affecting legal proceedings, etc.)
- For national security reasons (e.g. the Australian Secret Intelligence Service is exempt.)
Disclosing certain kinds of sensitive information can be extremely harmful, and therefore, some agencies and types of documents are exempt from disclosure.
There is sometimes a discretionary allowance, and the “public interest” test is used to decide, as government cannot escape scrutiny just because a poor decision might put them in a bad light.
Also, some types of documents are de-classified after a certain time lapse.
Technology Can Help Government Fulfil Its Obligations
The principles underpinning freedom of information are noble, but without the proper administration and tools, the ideals could flounder. An automated, digitised system enables a transparent process.
Manually managing an FOI process is painfully labour-intensive and not completely reliable. It is fraught with potential errors and missed deadlines, as the FOI officers must keep a handle on posted letters, emails, photocopies, deadlines, etc. all with a spreadsheet.
Besides, it is hard to categorise, search and audit the procedures without a digitised system.
However, with well-built Freedom of Information software, the process can be managed using automated workflow, triggered notifications, role-based permissions, and more. And added to this, you can have real-time reporting and personalised dashboards to track the process.
Other benefits include time and workload management, third-party access, approvals and dispute management.
Read here for more detailed information on the Nimblex Freedom of Information solution.
This process diagram sums up the workflow for a Freedom of Information request.
It is within the rights of a citizen to request publicly held information from government, councils and government agencies, and they in turn have an obligation to provide the documents swiftly, unless there is a valid reason that they fall under the exemption clauses.
However, without proper Freedom of Information software, an FOI department will struggle to meet its statutory obligations properly and within the required timeframe.
By Jeannie De Vynck