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Message from the Information Commissioner, Prof. John McMillan

Portrait photo of John McMillanNow is a challenging but rewarding time to work on information rights and policy.

The major challenge facing the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) over the last two years was to establish a new office to administer a scheme with three objectives – safeguarding personal privacy, improving access to information, and defining information policy. The OAIC was given an extensive range of powers that were previously separated or underdeveloped. The OAIC structure was also innovative, headed by three commissioners with separate and shared responsibilities. At a functional level there has also been the challenge of developing new work practices and systems that are tailored to supporting an integrated office.

The foundation work has largely been completed. The OAIC's continuing work presents another large challenge. There is a growing workload across most activities that is not accompanied by any staff increase. In 2011–12 there was a 3% increase in telephone enquiries to the office; a 47 % increase in written enquiries; and an 11%  increase in privacy complaints. In the new freedom of information (FOI) roles the office receives on a monthly average 11 complaints and 38 applications for Information Commissioner review (IC review). External relations became more active, involving 63 speeches and presentations by OAIC Commissioners and staff, 17 training sessions and a 28% increase in media enquiries. Specialist projects that were resource intensive in 2011–12 included a review of FOI charges, participation in Privacy Act reform projects, and a survey of publication practices in 245 government agencies.

The OAIC continues to look for ways to undertake this growing workload more efficiently but as effectively. A primary strategy, in complaint and investigation work, is to actively explore with applicants and agencies the options for early resolution of disagreements without the need for more extended negotiation or investigation. Another pre-emptive approach is to provide clear written guidance to government and business on contentious issues, so as to minimise the chance that problems will arise. In the policy arena we are selective about the range of issues that are taken up in submissions to inquiries and in publishing issues papers.

Those strategies have enabled the office to be active in 2011–12 across a wide range of issues, but the workload demands are nevertheless a continuing challenge. Some matters cannot be reduced in scope: a prime example is the FOI review work (numbering hundreds of cases) that requires a written decision by one of the three Commissioners. The community also expects the office to display leadership in protecting information rights and advancing information policy.

The challenges facing the OAIC point, on the flip side, to the rewarding nature of this work. Simply put, information choices become ever more important in the way that government and business manage their affairs and relate to the community. This is reflected in the issues that came before the OAIC in 2011–12.

The OAIC was consulted by government on many program initiatives that partially rest on reassuring the community that personal information will be securely and properly managed. Examples are the ehealth records system, passenger body scanning, student identifiers, cloud computing, smart metering, superannuation reform, service delivery restructuring, cybercrime, financial transactions reporting, identity management, personal property securities and media regulation.

The responsible management of personal information can be just as important to business reputation and planning. This was underscored by publicity given during the year to the OAIC's investigation of personal information data breaches by leading Australian and international companies. 

Both in industry and government, senior managers can be accountable for the way their organisations manage personal information.

Access to information issues now have greater prominence in government. There is a marked increase in FOI requests for policy-related material, an upswing in applicants challenging access refusals through the OAIC's independent complaint and review processes, and more media reporting based on documents obtained by FOI requests. A clear message for agencies is that information disclosure issues are important not only when access requests are received, but when documents and records are created and programs that will attract public interest are being developed. Disclosure by design is becoming a necessary practice.

Proactive publication of government information through the Information Publication Scheme and generally is also a distinct pressure. The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) spells out minimum publication requirements, but many agencies are taking the opportunity to reflect more broadly on the underlying philosophy and benefits of agency-driven disclosure and publication.

Another facet of recent reforms is a greater reliance on technology to make it easier for people to access government information, both on request and through visiting government websites. This link to technology has expanded the range of issues that now come within open government strategies. There is a keener understanding that transparency in government can be enhanced by measures such as electronic records management, web publication, web search applications, online access and machine-readability of government data.

The natural next step is to see those privacy and FOI issues as having added importance when set in a broader context of information policy and practice. The overarching theme is that all organisations — government and private — must manage information properly and effectively. There is a risk of harm to individuals if information is misused, the reliability of information cannot be trusted if it is not open to scrutiny, the true value of information will not be realised if it is not shared with others who can build upon it, and the custodians of information are less likely to be trusted if they eschew transparency.

The pursuit of those connections has been a fulfilling aspect of OAIC work in the past year. It has drawn us into an expanding range of discussions and projects, in and outside government, that spring from the premise that it is smart business to manage information wisely. The year ahead will be as engaging.