The investigation was opened in October 2014 in response to negative trends identified in DHS processing of FOI requests between 2011–12 and 2013–14. DHS increased its use of the ‘practical refusal’ mechanism in the FOI Act from 33 occasions in 2011–12, to 777 occasions in 2013–14. There was also a decline in the number of FOI requests to which access to documents was given in full, from 58% of requests in 2011–12 to 26% in 2013–14.
Professor McMillan said a key finding of the investigation is that agencies need to focus on developing a pro-disclosure culture. ‘I found that the Department’s focus on improving its technical compliance with procedural provisions in the FOI Act had unintended consequences which are inconsistent with the pro-disclosure objectives that lie at the heart of the FOI Act,’ he said
‘Agencies should have an internal culture and procedures that facilitate and promote prompt public access to information and at the lowest reasonable cost,’ Professor McMillan said.
The investigation made thirteen recommendations to:
- promote a pro-disclosure culture
- simplify the FOI experience for customers
- improve administration of the practical refusal process.
DHS have advised that it will implement each of the report’s 13 recommendations over the coming months. The Commissioner acknowledges the positive approach taken by DHS during the investigation and in committing to implement the recommendations.
‘I am confident that by implementing the recommendations in the report the department can improve outcomes for its FOI clients, without losing the benefits gained by improving the technical and legal capabilities of its FOI unit,’ Professor McMillan said.
‘DHS receives the second highest number of FOI requests of any Australian Government agency. However, the investigation findings should be heeded by all agencies. The FOI processing environment analysed in this report is not dissimilar to that in many agencies,’ Professor McMillan said.
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