DIAC response to OMI report on processing of non-routine FOI requests

22 September 2012

Report of an own motion investigation – Report No OM12/00001

Text of response from Acting Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship

Acting Secretary

Professor John McMillan
Australian Information Commissioner
GPO Box 2999
Canberra ACT 2601

Dear Professor McMillan

Re Own Motion Investigation - OM12/00001

I refer to your letter to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) of 4 September 2012 in which you advised that you had completed your investigation of a number of issues relating to DIAC's handling of non-routine requests received under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) that are complex or sensitive.

As you are aware, and have acknowledged, DIAC has been making changes over time, and particularly since receipt of your issues paper in April 2012, to our FOI staffing and processes in an attempt to improve timeliness in the processing of non-personal requests. I note that, as at 16 September 2012, the number of non-personal requests on hand in the National Office team had reduced to 108, of which 70 were outside the statutory timeframe for processing. This is an improvement from 1 July 2012 when there were 143 requests on hand and 114 were outside the statutory timeframe for processing.

You acknowledge DIAC's Management Initiated Review conducted by Ernst and Young in 2011 as a positive step to address delays in processing of non-personal requests. However, in response to the announcement of your Own Motion investigation, DIAC also commissioned a Review of DIAC's FOI procedures. The Terms of Reference included the requirement to identify comparative best FOI practices in other agencies which could be adopted by the FOI team in National Office as well as to consider the appropriate levels of decision makers in DIAC. The Review was conducted by Mr Robert Cornall between May and July 2012.

The Review concluded that the FOI team's established processes and procedures are not the principal, nor even a significant, cause of the department's poor FOI performance. It concluded that the major contributing factor is the lack of a whole of department approach to effective FOI management.

To assist in improving the department's compliance with the FOI Act, the Review made a number of recommendations. These focus on a greater profile for FOI, the need for a Secretary's instruction to all DIAC staff highlighting the whole-of-department responsibility for responding to FOI requests, improved escalation procedures to minimise delays and strategies to increase staff awareness of their FOI obligations. A copy of the Review's recommendations are at Attachment A.

These recommendations were endorsed by DIAC's Executive Committee on 17 September 2012. A report on the status of the implementation of the recommendations has been requested for the Executive Committee by the end of November.

In your letter of 4 September you requested responses to two recommendations. The response to Recommendation 1, that is an update on some unfinalised FOI requests, can be found at Attachment B.

You have requested a response to Recommendation 2 within the next three months and a more detailed response will be provided. As a general response to Recommendation 2 however, I note that the unacceptable delays in FOI processing within DIAC's National Office team arose from a combination of factors, primarily insufficient staff allocated to the process requests at the time of a major increase in the workload as well as a lack of engagement by key areas of the department. Based on your recommendations and those of the aforementioned reviews, we are working to improve our processes and timeliness. We will provide a more comprehensive report by mid December.

I agree to the inclusion of my response in your published report and look forward to working with you and your staff to improve DIAC's FOI performance.

Yours sincerely

Martin Bowles, PSM