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Chapter One — Year in review


  1. Year in review
  2. Freedom of information
  3. Information policy
  4. Privacy
  5. 2012–13: the year ahead

Year in review

2011–12 was a year of consolidation for the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). This was the first full year of operation since the OAIC was established on 1 November 2010..

The pre-eminent feature of the OAIC is that it integrates three functions — protecting the public’s right of access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act); ensuring proper handling of personal information in accordance with the Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act); and providing advice to government on information policy and practice.

Those functions cast the OAIC in the roles of regulator, decision maker, adviser, researcher and educator. An important challenge that continued to engage the OAIC in 2011–12 was the integration of those functions and roles in a single agency that is located in both Canberra and Sydney.

The OAIC’s workload continued to grow in 2011–12. The enquiries line received 21,317 telephone calls (a 3% increase on the previous year), and 2822 written enquiries were responded to (a 47% increase). There were 1357 privacy complaints, 126 freedom of information (FOI) complaints, 456 applications for Information Commissioner review (IC review) and the office conducted 37 privacy own motion investigations (OMIs).

That work can only be undertaken efficiently and effectively if the office, though independent, maintains a strong and respectful working relationship with government, business and the community. Sustained attention was therefore given to each of the OAIC’s roles so that it can provide guidance and assistance to government and employers, while monitoring and regulating compliance with the privacy and information laws that the OAIC administers. The importance of responsible information management has been a key OAIC message.

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Freedom of information

2011–12 was the first full year of operation of the reforms to the FOI Act that commenced in November 2010. The OAIC faced a dual challenge — to continue promoting and providing guidance on the reforms; and to discharge the advice, complaint and review functions that are a core OAIC responsibility.

On the promotion and guidance front, the OAIC completed the publication of a comprehensive set of guidelines on the FOI Act that are issued by the Australian Information Commissioner under s 93A of the FOI Act. Agencies and ministers are required to have regard to these guidelines. In total, there are 234 pages of guidelines that are periodically updated to incorporate FOI developments.

The guidelines are supplemented by a range of other publications that were further developed in 2011–12. Thirteen agency resource sheets were issued containing sample letters, checklists and other practical aids. Written guidance was issued on FOI principles, redaction, statistical returns, calculation of processing periods, disclosure logs and the application of the FOI Act in Norfolk Island. A large number of FOI and open government presentations were also given at public seminars and to government agencies; and the FOI reform training program for government agencies was completed.

The OAIC completed 253 IC reviews in 2011–12, finalised 100 complaints, responded to 1610 FOI enquiries, and logged 2237 extension of time notifications and requests. An OMI was commenced into an Australian Government agency’s compliance with the statutory time limits for FOI processing.

Two major projects to review the operation of the FOI Act were commenced in 2011–12. One was a review of the FOI charges regime, at the request of the then Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information. A feature of this review was the publication of an issues paper followed by consultations with Australian Government agencies, advisory committees, community organisations and members of the public.

The report was provided to the Attorney-General in February 2012 and contained recommendations for legislative reform concerning the scale, calculation and waiver of FOI charges. A theme of the report was that applicants and agencies would equally benefit from a new charges framework that is clear, easy to administer and understand; that encourages agencies to build an open and responsive culture; and that provides a pathway for applicants to frame requests that can be administered promptly and attract little or no processing charges.

A second project commenced but not finalised in 2011–12 was a survey to assess compliance by Australian Government agencies with the FOI Act requirements for the Information Publication Scheme (IPS). The survey questions were designed to build a picture of the public sector information held and published by agencies, whether information management practices are consistent across government, and practical obstacles to proactive publication by government agencies.

The IPS is a central element of the FOI reform objective to drive a cultural shift towards more proactive release and publication of public sector information. The OAIC expects to conduct a second survey in early 2014 that will enable comparison with the results from the 2011–12 survey. A desktop review program is also underway and will continue until 2016. As part of that program the OAIC is examining the websites of around 250 agencies to assess compliance with IPS legal requirements as well as the best practice recommendations for IPS development in the Information Commissioner’s FOI Act Guidelines.

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Information policy

The development and implementation of a national information policy framework continues to be a key OAIC priority. A central theme is that government-held information should be managed as a national resource. Doing so can engage the public, strengthen democracy, improve decision making and stimulate business and social innovation.

The OAIC is assisted in this endeavour by an Information Advisory Committee (IAC)that first met in November 2011. The 12 members of the IAC bring broad experience in government, information management, journalism, technology, libraries, disability access, legal practice and community engagement to the OAIC’s information policy work. The IAC has been a valuable forum for discussion and advice on contentious information access issues.

The OAIC convened an inaugural Information Policy Conference in November 2011, attended by over 270 people. Under the broad umbrella of ‘Public Sector Information: A National Resource’, the one-day conference explored the proactive publication of public sector information and enlisting technology to facilitate information exchange between government and the community. The conference, to be staged every two years, captured a strong and growing interest in the open government dimension to information policy and management.

The OAIC’s second issues paper on information policy was launched at the conference. Understanding the value of public sector information in Australia examined the feasibility of developing a methodology for assessing the economic and social value to the community of public sector information. This paper gave rise to questions on public sector information management and publication that were included in the IPS survey, referred to earlier in this chapter. The focus of the questions was the experience of agencies in complying with the Principles on open public sector information that were published by the OAIC in 2010. The OAIC will release the results of this survey in the second half of 2012.

The OAIC contributed to other forums in 2011–12 that were considering open government developments. These included the Government 2.0 Taskforce, the APS 200 Location Project examining the publication of spatial data, and the AusGOAL Practitioners’ Group concerned with open access and licensing.

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The OAIC’s work in privacy protection and promotion continued to be highly visible. OAIC comments on data breach incidents were frequently sought by the media and received wide coverage. There was a 28% increase in media enquiries to the OAIC in 2011–12, mostly related to privacy issues.

The OAIC’s privacy compliance activities continued to dominate its workload this year. The OAIC dealt with 1357 privacy complaints, which was an 11% increase on the previous year. Thirty seven OMIs were initiated, including some high profile investigations into alleged data breaches by organisations such as Telstra, First State Super and Sony. The office handled 8976 privacy-related telephone enquiries, 1541 written enquiries and 46 data breach notifications. There were 14 inspections and data-matching audits of customs, taxation, health, social welfare and ACT Government records. A determination by the Privacy Commissioner awarding compensation for a privacy breach was also made.

A revised guide, Data breach notification: A guide to handling personal information security breaches, was launched in 2012 as part of Privacy Awareness Week (PAW). This event, attended by around 180 representatives from government and business, also included presentations on the appropriate organisational response to data breaches. A record number of organisations joined PAW as partners this year, up from 80 in 2011 and almost three times the number of partners in 2010.

The OAIC was closely involved in the privacy law reform process during 2011–12. The Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Bill 2012 was introduced into the Parliament in May 2012 and referred to both a House of Representatives and a Senate Committee. The OAIC made submissions to both committees, in addition to in-depth discussions with government about the proposed reforms.

Another major privacy reform project in 2011–12 was the development of the OAIC’s role as the independent privacy regulator of personal information handling under the eHealth record system. The OAIC’s regulatory role includes investigating complaints about the mishandling of health information in eHealth records, as well as conducting own motion investigations. The OAIC will have a range of enforcement powers available to it following an investigation, including the power to seek civil penalties.

More broadly, the OAIC provided privacy advice to seven government agencies on the privacy aspects of proposed legislative and administrative reforms; provided similar significant advice to business and non-profit organisations on the impact of the National Privacy Principles; participated in a number of cross-government forums examining national identity, cyber crime and financial transaction reporting; made new legislative instruments relating to tax file numbers and credit provision; issued public interest determinations on collection and dissemination of health and family information; and made 25 submissions to inquiries being undertaken by parliamentary committees and government agencies.

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2012–13: the year ahead

It is certain that 2012–13 will be as busy for the OAIC. It is probable that privacy and FOI enquiries, complaints and review applications to the office will continue to increase. Substantial reforms to privacy laws may commence operation that will confer additional functions and powers on the OAIC. New information policy projects and publications are planned. A statutory review of the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 and the FOI Act will commence in November 2012 and provide a valuable opportunity for the OAIC to reflect on its role, performance and structure.

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