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Chapter One — Year in review

 Contents

  1. Achievements and challenges in 2012–13
  2. Information Policy
  3. Privacy
  4. Freedom of Information
  5. Financial performance
  6. 2013–14: Outlook

The central aim of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is to protect the community's information rights and to advance information policy in government. The OAIC's vision is that information will be managed by government as a national resource that is accessible and useable, and that personal information held by government and non-government organisations will be respected and protected.

The OAIC's work is undertaken in three particular ways:

  • promoting and enforcing the legal rights conferred upon the community by the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) to obtain access to Government documents
  • safeguarding protection of personal information, by ensuring that Government agencies and private sector organisations manage information in accordance with the standards of the Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act)
  • advancing government information policy and practice, with a particular focus on principles and strategies that support open government.

The OAIC is keenly committed to identifying and responding to the changing information environment in government and society.

The OAIC's workload continued to grow in 2012–13. This trend reflects the active interest of the Australian community in both exercising their right to seek access to government information and ensuring that the privacy of their personal information is respected.

The OAIC handled:

  • 18,205 phone enquiries
  • 3142 written enquiries (11.3% increase on previous year)
  • 1496 privacy complaints (10.2% increase)
  • 61 data breach notifications (33% increase)
  • 507 applications for Information Commissioner (IC review) (11.2% increase)
  • 148 freedom of information (FOI) complaints (17.5% increase)
  • 2,290 agency extension of time notifications and requests.

 Achievements and challenges in 2012–13

The OAIC undertook a significant restructure in 2012–13. This was primarily in response to two pressures.

The first was a growing increase and backlog in FOI complaints and IC reviews. The OAIC appointed a special team from in and outside the office to address this problem. The team was highly successful in doing so, as reflected in statistics discussed elsewhere in this report. However, this was only a temporary and resource intensive measure that could not be continued beyond 2012–13.

At the same time, the OAIC faced a decrease in its overall staffing levels, partly due to budgetary tightening across government. The staffing and workload pressures were the subject of questioning during Senate Estimates hearings in 2012–13. It was pointed out that the initial staffing estimate for the OAIC when it was being established was around 100 staff to carry out the three FOI, privacy and information policy functions. At times during 2012–13 the staffing level was closer to 70 budget-supported positions.

In response to these pressures an organisational re-structure commenced in March 2013 with the aim of delivering greater efficiencies in a constrained budgetary environment. The OAIC's work was reorganised around three divisions in the office. An important element of the new structure is that the OAIC's work across all functions and divisions continue to be integrated, reflecting a theme of responsible information management.

Another element of the restructure is that the work had to be prioritised. A consequence is that less work could be undertaken in some areas. These included own motion investigations and auditing, training and monitoring compliance with the Information Publication Scheme.

Despite this challenging environment significant progress was made in 2012–13.

 Information Policy

The OAIC continued to work with Government agencies to embed the open public sector information principles. Following a survey of 191 agencies in 2012, the OAIC released an interim report of its findings in August 2012, and a full report in February 2013 — Open public sector information: from principles to practice. The report found that Australian Government agencies are actively embracing an open access and proactive disclosure culture, but many policy challenges and practical obstacles remain.

2012–13 was also a significant year for information policy with the Government signalling its intention to join the Open Government Partnership, which is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency and open government. The OAIC has supported this step. Australia's involvement in the Open Government Partnership will require the preparation of a national action plan designed to advance the open government agenda in Australia.

Throughout 2012–13, the OAIC was an active participant in a range of forums that considered open government developments. These included the Big Data Strategy Group, the Prime Minister's Science Engineering and Innovation Council, and an applied research project conducted by the Treasury Board of Quebec.

The Information Advisory Committee continued to provide support to the Information Commissioner on a range of information policy issues including the OAIC's submissions to the Hawke Review of the FOI Act and the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 (AIC Act).

 Privacy

Law reform continued to dominate the OAIC's privacy workload during 2012–13, at a time when privacy complaints and enquiries continued to rise. The most significant reforms to the Privacy Act for 25 years were passed by the Parliament in November 2012. The OAIC began work on approximately 50 sets of key guidance material for Government agencies and the private sector for implementation of the reforms on 12 March 2014. The OAIC was not given any additional resourcing but by 30 June 2013, this work was well advanced.

A significant achievement was the publication of a Guide to information security: reasonable steps to protect personal information, launched as part of Privacy Awareness Week 2013. Again, Privacy Awareness Week continued to grow, and with privacy law reform implementation on the horizon there was great interest this, year with almost 160 partners, a record number, joining the OAIC in its campaign.

The OAIC continued to consolidate its role as the independent regulator of privacy compliance for Australia's eHealth system. During 2012–13, an audit program was commenced and a significant number of eHealth publications were released including enforcement guidelines and consumer fact sheets.

The Privacy Advisory Committee continued to carry out its role of advising the Information Commissioner on matters relevant to his functions and to engage in and promote protection of individual privacy in the private sector, Government and the community. The Privacy Advisory Committee provided advice on a range of issues throughout 2012–13, importantly on privacy law reform implementation.

 Freedom of Information

It was a significant year in the area of freedom of information as 2012–13 saw the 30th anniversary of the FOI Act. Over the last 30 years there has been a significant cultural change in the attitude of government agencies towards the release of information and the OAIC continues to work towards reinforcing and building on that cultural shift. Since 1982, nearly 1 million requests have been made to Australian Government agencies and it is now routine for Government agencies not only to release but publish documents. The 30th anniversary gave the OAIC the opportunity to reflect on the success of the FOI Act, but also where there are areas for reform.

In terms of the OAIC's own FOI work, an own motion investigation into the Department of Immigration and Citizenship's (DIAC) handling of complex and sensitive FOI requests was finalised. This was the OAIC's first FOI own motion investigation. Since the finalisation of the investigation, and consequent steps taken by DIAC to address the findings, it is pleasing to see that the number of complaints received by the OAIC about DIAC decreased substantially.

On 31 October 2012, the Attorney-General announced that Dr Allan Hawke AC would undertake a review of the FOI Act and the AIC Act. The OAIC provided two submissions addressing matters raised in the terms of reference and suggesting 35 proposals for reform. The Information Commissioner's recommendations in the 2012 Review of Charges under the Freedom of Information Act 1982, to which the Government is yet to respond, were also included in the OAIC's Hawke review submissions. The Hawke review was released in August 2013, outside the reporting period.

 Financial performance

The Australian National Audit Office provided an unqualified audit opinion on the OAIC's financial statements for 2012–13.

During the year the OAIC faced the challenge of unfunded capital expenditure relating to an Electronic Document and Records Management System, new office fit-out for the Canberra site, and development and implementation of a new website. These requirements placed added pressure on the OAIC's already limited ability to maintain a viable workforce.

 2013–14: Outlook

The OAIC will continue to operate in an environment of increasing demand and reduced resources. The financial environment continues to be tight and the OAIC expects it to remain so over the next few budget cycles.

The OAIC has many challenges and opportunities ahead in 2013–14, particularly with implementation of new privacy laws that confer additional functions and powers on the OAIC. Work will also continue on developing a National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership.

It is certain that 2013–14 will be another busy, challenging and rewarding year in the area of open government and privacy protection.