FOI, Open Government and the way forward

Driving reform is never easy. Changes to the way you do your work is hard. This is made harder still when those changes mean that your workplace mistakes become front page news and lead local bulletins for days.

Persevering with these changes despite the negative coverage will, I believe, improve the way the ACT Government provides services to the community.

This week has seen discussion about the Territory’s Freedom of Information laws. What role do Ministers play? Why don’t’ we release more? Why are things blacked out? Shouldn’t all information be made public? What does open government actually mean?

There has been extensive coverage over the application of FOI laws this week with some alleging political interference in the process. These are serious allegations which are without evidence to back them up. Public servants are charged with the responsibilities to determine the release of information, Ministers have absolutely no role in what information is released to those who make applications to Directorates under Freedom of Information laws.

The new FOI section on the open government website is up and running and all material released through FOI is posted online within 15 days of the information going to the applicant.

There are strict laws that determine the process that is followed and that the public service is responsible for applying the FOI laws to what is released, its timing and of course most importantly that members of the public and staff are protected. When we are dealing with medical information of people this is of particular importance, and governed by both the Health Records Act and the Privacy Act.

That said, I do think that changes need to be made to the FOI laws. Today’s Canberra Times article provides a good summary of what we plan to do.

A shift in thinking is needed to make information that has been long guarded more freely available. Of course there will always be some limits, but I think that if the thinking changes from “what do we have to release” to “what can we release” that this will see a fundamental shift in the openness and transparency of governance.

Importantly it lets the community into the workings of government – and I hope truly engages people in not only seeing how and why their services are delivered in certain ways – but also involve the community in how we can things better.

We have made progress in implementing our open government reforms. The new open government website that provides access to weekly cabinet summaries, publishes FOI documents online for all to see, and provides a single point of access to government information are all steps in the right direction. We are also opening up government data sets, providing easier access to reports, and we have launched the Time to Talk online forum for Canberrans to have their say.

I do believe we have one of the most open and progressive governments in Australia, but that does not mean there is not a lot more to do. We also need to remember that change is challenging and it does takes time, but importantly if we take continue to progress open government reforms, despite the critics, we will be taking steps in the right direction.