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Message from the Australian Information Commissioner, Prof. John McMillan

Photograph of Australian Information Commissioner, Prof John McMillanThree themes were prominent in the work of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) in 2012–13.

Firstly, the OAIC received and resolved an increased number of privacy and freedom of information (FOI) enquiries, complaints, review applications and notifications. The reason is not that there was a noticeably higher error rate by government agencies and private organisations in dealing with information issues. Rather, members of the public valued the opportunity of approaching an independent agency for an explanation or resolution of an information issue or dispute.

The OAIC, as explained in this report, faced difficulty in handling this workload as expeditiously as we would have liked. The increased workload is nevertheless a pleasing confirmation of the assistance the OAIC is able to provide to the public, government agencies and private organisations.

Secondly, the OAIC took on special project work during the year that imposed a larger than usual resource demand. Major projects included preparing a suite of new guidelines and publications for the reforms to the Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act) that commence in March 2014; contributing to a major independent review of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) and the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010; and completing and publishing a survey of how government agencies manage public sector information, entitled Open public sector information: from principles to practice.

Each of those projects demonstrates in a similar way the dynamic quality of information issues in government and society. They are instances of the continuing need to appraise the adequacy of existing arrangements and approaches to managing, valuing and sharing information, and safeguarding personal information. Technological changes affecting all dimensions of information management are a common theme in most of the new information policy challenges the OAIC addressed in 2012–13. We look forward to continue playing a leadership role in public analysis of information trends and challenges in coming years.

The third major theme in OAIC work in 2012–13 was the importance of taking an integrated approach to information privacy, open government and public sector information management. Prior to the OAIC's establishment in 2010, privacy and FOI had operated for more than two decades as separate schemes, and were sometimes said to be in conflict. When they were brought together in a unified scheme in 2010 they were also set in a broader setting of information policy and practice, which became a third and distinct OAIC responsibility.

We have pursued the opportunity that those three functions provide of stressing the importance of taking an integrated approach to all information management issues. The overarching theme is the need for responsible information management by all organisations, government and private.

The opportunity of stressing the need for an integrated approach arises constantly in OAIC work. In reviewing FOI exemption claims, for example, the OAIC is frequently required to decide whether a document should be released to an FOI applicant or can be withheld by reason of personal information of a third party within the document. A number of the FOI cases decided in 2012–13 were applications initiated by third parties objecting to the release of personal information. The OAIC has arranged for all three Commissioners — the Information, Privacy and Freedom of Information Commissioners — to decide those cases so as to bring a broader perspective to the cases.

Beyond individual cases, the OAIC was frequently consulted by agencies in 2012–13 that were keen to extract greater value from the public sector information they held by making it more readily available to other agencies, researchers and the community. At the same time the agencies were keenly anxious to ensure that personal information privacy was not jeopardised. The OAIC followed up on these discussions by issuing draft guidance on de-identification of data that emphasised the need to take a balanced approach to sharing data while safeguarding privacy. This has also been a strong theme in the OAIC's advocacy for government agencies to proactively publish more information in pursuit of open government ideals.

The OAIC has a role under both the FOI and Privacy Acts of issuing guidelines on the interpretation and administration of both Acts. FOI Act Guidelines were substantially published in 2011, and draft guidelines on the new Privacy Act reforms were being released progressively in 2013. At many points there has been a need to ensure convergence in the guidance given on both Acts, and more generally the OAIC is striving to ensure that there is consistency in the style and approach in both sets of guidelines.

The opportunity to pursue the theme of integration in information policy and practice may arise in a new setting in 2013–14. The Government announced in May 2013 that Australia would join nearly sixty other countries in the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) that was established in 2011. A principal requirement for a country joining the OGP is that it must prepare, after community consultation, a country (or national) action plan that explains the framework of agencies and policies that play a role in information policy and practice, and identifies reform projects the country will embark upon.

The OAIC has expressed support for Australia joining the OGP and offered to play an active role in developing a national action plan. In developing a plan, the OAIC would continue to advocate the need to take an integrated approach to all information management issues.