My name is Toni Pirani. I'm currently the Acting Freedom of Information Commissioner for the Commonwealth.

International Access to Information Day is really about promoting and upholding the rights of citizens to have access to government information. For me, I think a really key part of it is that it's international and what that tells us is that citizens right around the world, across all levels of government, are actually looking to get access to information from the government.

And I think it's interesting to reflect on why they want access to that information. And it can be curiosity, but more often I think it's because people are actually impacted by the actions of government, and they want to understand how those decisions are made and how those actions come about.

So sometimes it's a personal interest. People are personally affected by a decision, but sometimes it's broader than that. It can be a community interest or a public interest. And our freedom of information regime covers all of those things.

The Information Publications Scheme is a really important part of Australia's freedom of information laws. What it requires agencies to do is to proactively publish information about who they are and what they do. And more broadly than that. To actually publish their operational documents and the documents that they rely on in making their decisions.

Another part of the scheme is the Freedom of Information Disclosure Log. So when someone makes a request to an agency under the FOI Act and the agency decides to release information, they then publish that on their website as well. And the idea is that if information is proactively published, then people don't need to use FOI as much. And so together, those two things support open access to information.

Online access to information is something that actually wasn't available when I joined the public service in 1987. So for quite a big part of my career, we didn't have access to online tools. So for me, I can just see how important that technology has been to allowing people to access information whenever they want. They can do it immediately. They can do it at very low cost. They can look at general information about government's policies and processes and in some instances they can actually go online to access information that's held about them and to update that information and to check that it's correct.

So it's such an important tool for how people can access government information. Having said that, not all of us are digital natives. Some of us who have been around for a bit longer can be really challenged by the technology. We might not have the devices that we need or the software that we need  to access that information.

There are other barriers as well, people with disability, people who don't engage with technology as well as others. So, you know, I think we do have to be mindful that although it's a great tool, making it accessible to everyone and making sure that no one is left behind is actually really key as well.

As Australia's Acting Freedom of Information Commissioner I'm very concerned about the backlog that we have of Information Commissioner reviews, but I wouldn't want that to reflect on seeing the system as a whole as broken.

We receive only a very small number of the overall number of FOI requests. So last year agencies did over 34,000 FOI requests.

Only about 5% of those come on appeal to the OAIC. And I think sometimes it's forgotten that the vast majority of people are getting access to the information they need within the statutory timeframes and the matters that come to us on appeal tend to be the more complex and the more disputed matters. So overall, the system is serving a very large number of people within the statutory timeframes.

For individuals who are seeking access to their own information. Sometimes they've been quite traumatised by their dealings with government. And if not traumatised, frustrated. So they're coming to FOI to get the answers. And I think that's where our FOI practitioners come in.

If they can engage with applicants in a constructive and respectful and trauma informed way, then we really can take advantage of that opportunity to build trust and to assure people about what has happened in their matter and to give them the information and assurance that they're seeking.

FOI practitioners are a really key part of the agencies that they work in, and often, as I said, FOI comes at the end, something's gone wrong or someone's frustrated and they make an FOI request.

The FOI practitioners can often tell the agency a lot about how that agency is performing. And I would like to see practitioners get involved earlier in some of these processes to help agencies with things like their record keeping, to help them with their policy development, to help with proactive disclosure of information so that people don't need to make an FOI request to help agencies with things like self service initiatives so that people can seek their own information online rather than having to make an FOI request.

I think that FOI practitioners sometimes face some cultural barriers in their agencies. That people have really busy day jobs and they're trying to get on with those jobs. And an FOI request is often an additional piece of work that needs to be done and seen as a bit of a nuisance sometimes.

I think that by working with their colleagues and explaining to them the benefits of having open access to information and really proactively helping their agencies put information out into the public where they can and actually helping them with things like designing policies, designing how they keep their information, how it's recorded and how it's accessed can really mean that everyone in the system can work well together.

So at the OAIC, we provide a lot of guidance to FOI practitioners to help them with processing requests. Our guidance is very detailed and I think very helpful to practitioners in doing their role. We also have an FOI toolkit that can be used by practitioners to help them in their role, to help them educate their agencies around things like Open by Design Principles. So we're here to help practitioners and they should reach out to us if they need guidance.