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Message from the Acting Australian Information Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim PSM

Photo of Acting Australian Information Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim PSMWhen reflecting on the 2014–15 financial year, one thing stands out.

While successfully embedding the most significant reforms to the Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act) since its enactment was a major milestone, it was the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner's (OAIC) ability to achieve this collaboratively with business, Australian Government agencies and consumer groups during an uncertain time for the OAIC that is most commendable.

Following the Australian Government's announcement in May 2014 that the OAIC would be disbanded and new arrangements put in place for the administration of freedom of information (FOI) and privacy, the 2014–15 financial year had the potential to be OAIC's least effective. It would have been natural for those working at the OAIC to have focused on their personal futures, and for productivity to have dropped.

However, this was not the case. The significant output of the OAIC continued, providing an amazing demonstration of the commitment of its people to uphold the best values of the Australian Public Service (APS), and meet the needs of the Australian public.

In June 2014, in recognition of the 2014–15 Budget decision and the cessation of the OAIC on 31 December 2014, a process was commenced to scale back operations. Work commenced to transfer certain FOI functions and staffing resources to other agencies. In particular, arrangements were put in place for the Commonwealth Ombudsman to handle FOI complaints, while FOI policy and reporting activities were transferred to the Attorney-General's Department.

Preparations also commenced to close the OAIC's Canberra office. Staff in that office were provided with assistance to locate new employment or transition out of the APS. With the closure of the Canberra office on 5 December 2014, FOI functions were undertaken solely from the OAIC's Sydney office.

At the same time, the OAIC had been revising its Information Commissioner review (IC review) processes to enhance the timeliness of decisions. These new processes significantly increased the number of IC review decisions made during the reporting period — 128, up from 98 in the previous year. And while the OAIC received 373 IC review applications during the year, it finalised 482, further demonstrating the impact of these enhanced processes. The average time taken to deal with new IC review applications has also been significantly reduced.

The Bill to disband the OAIC passed through the House of Representatives but was not considered by the Senate prior to the date of effect, 1 January 2015. This remained the situation through the following six months of the reporting year. Consequently, as it became clear that the OAIC would continue on into the 2015–16 financial year, the Australian Government reallocated funding to enable the OAIC to continue to undertake a streamlined IC review function. This function continues to be effectively undertaken by a dedicated FOI team based in Sydney.

At the same time, the achievements of the OAIC in the privacy area were many. As mentioned above, we saw the bedding down of significant reforms to the Privacy Act in the lead up to the first anniversary of their commencement on 12 March 2015. The OAIC issued 32 sets of guidance material to assist entities covered by the Privacy Act, and the broader community, to understand their responsibilities and rights.

An important example of this guidance was the release of the OAIC's Privacy regulatory action policy and complimentary Guide to privacy regulatory action, which demonstrated the OAIC's commitment to openness and transparency in how it undertakes its privacy regulatory activities. The OAIC also released its Privacy management framework, designed to enable compliance and good privacy practice by embedding privacy governance within entities.

During this period, the OAIC also handled some 16,166 privacy enquiries, received 2841 privacy complaints and closed 1976, as well as handling 110 voluntary data breach notifications. The OAIC also opened the first Commissioner initiated investigation, and accepted its first enforceable undertaking, following the 2014 reforms to the Privacy Act. The OAIC commenced 12 privacy assessments to assess entities' compliance with the Privacy Act and good personal information handling practices, and made recommendations to improve privacy practice.

To help ensure that good privacy management processes are considered early in policy development, the OAIC participated in consultations on a number of important legislative reforms, through the provision of advice and submissions to Australian Government departments and Parliamentary Committees, on major issues such as the introduction of a mandatory data retention scheme and reforms to the personally controlled electronic health system.

The OAIC's education and promotional activities were also highlighted through another extremely successful Privacy Awareness Week, held in the first week of May. This year the OAIC was supported by 237 partner entities from across a variety of sectors to promote the message of Privacy everyday. The opening business breakfast and subsequent privacy impact assessment workshops were all sold out, and the OAIC successfully drew on the benefits of social media for disseminating information to an even wider audience than in previous years.

So, clearly, this was a year where, despite a challenging environment, the OAIC continued to deliver on both its privacy and FOI functions for the Australian community. I acknowledge the professionalism that achievement has embodied.

Finally, I would also like to acknowledge the leadership shown by the inaugural Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, whose commitment to open, transparent and responsible information management practices by government in the public interest was a hallmark of his tenure as Australian Information Commissioner. In his work on information policy and FOI, Professor McMillan was also well supported by the FOI Commissioner, Dr James Popple, who resigned from the OAIC on 31 December 2014 to take up a position in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. I wish to acknowledge James's contributions, and also those of Alison Leonard, the former Assistant Commissioner, Corporate Support and Communications, to the establishment of the OAIC as part of the Executive team from its commencement in November 2010.