Most of us have felt at least a tinge of apprehension when we read how our personal data can be used, especially when it comes to our digital footprints. We tend to freely give away our details every time we fill in an online form, without thinking how that information is being used.
Fortunately, there are laws that govern our privacy in the tech space, and likewise, there are laws that apply to data held by government institutions that oblige them to protect it and to share it with the entitled people who request it. This is where ‘Freedom of Information’ comes in to play.
In this article, we answer the questions – where does the law stand on publicly held information and what does the public have a right to know?
What is Freedom of Information?
In short, Freedom of Information (FOI) is the right to access information that is held by public bodies. All information held by a government and its institutions, especially if it pertains to the person seeking it, should be freely disclosed on request. A request can only be denied if there is a legitimate reason, such as security risks. Increasingly, this right to access public information is being written into the laws of many countries around the world.
Why do we Have a Right to Access Publicly Held Information?
The right to access publicly held information is based on the fundamental principles of Human Rights, Transparency, Accountability and Trust. This is supported by international bodies such as UNESCO.
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 transparent disclosure by governments, 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.
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, for example, 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, from spam marketing, employment records, online privacy, surveillance, and personal information being seen by others.
It is within your rights to request access to, among others:
- Your personal information (you can also ask for your personal information to be corrected if needs be)
- Policy-making documents
- Decision-making documents
What are the Obligations of Government Departments, Local Councils and Government 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 in essence 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. You can appeal/review if your request has been denied, or lodge an official complaint if you feel it is necessary.
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.
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. However, using an automated, digitised system facilitates 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 within 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.
This process diagram sums up the workflow for an FOI request as it flows from the initial request through to delivery.
Interested in Learning How an FOI Solution can Help you?
Without a Freedom of Information Solution, an FOI department will struggle to meet their statutory obligations properly and within the required timeframes. VendorPanel’s Freedom of Information Solution takes care of the admin burden of keeping track of and managing the FOI process – contact us to learn more.
By Jeannie De Vynck