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The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner — 12 months on

Presentation by Prof. John McMillan, Australian Information Commissioner, at OAIC Information Policy Conference (15 November 2011)

In this session the three OAIC Commissioners will reflect on the growth and work of the Office over the past year, and comment on future directions. My comments focus on the information policy role of the Office.

The creation of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in 2010 was in tune with developments occurring in some other Australian jurisdictions and internationally, but the reforms went further in at least three respects.

FOI and privacy had been joined in an integrated scheme in some other jurisdictions, but the national Australian scheme added information policy as a distinct third responsibility. This function of providing advice to government on information policy was hitherto a general executive function that was discharged by government departments. Under the new Australian scheme it became a distinct function conferred by legislation upon an independent statutory agency.

Secondly, the new agency would be headed by three commissioners, who were each appointed as independent statutory officers – the Australian Information Commissioner, Freedom of Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner. The first two were new positions, while the Privacy Commissioner was an existing position that was integrated into the new office. An interesting feature of the Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 (AIC Act) is that it separately defines the scope of the FOI, privacy and information policy functions.

The third innovation is that the AIC Act establishes an Information Advisory Committee (IAC) to assist the Information Commissioner in the function of providing advice to government on information policy. The members of the IAC were announced in September 2011 by the Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information. The thirteen members of the IAC combine a diverse range of skills and experience in government, journalism, politics, libraries, archives, community advocacy, the law, special access needs and information management and technology. We hold our first meeting in December. I believe that the IAC is poised to make an exciting and different contribution to the work of the OAIC and, beyond that, to government and the community.

This new scheme for information management and policy is a unique scheme. It draws on considerable experience that already exists in Australia, but it is a new office that has had to be built from the ground up (as captured in a couple of the photos taken on my first day in the job that are displayed in the accompanying powerpoint presentation). In a short period the OAIC has assembled a talented staff who have been active in publishing a valuable range of new publications, and organising functions such as this conference.

Information policy covers a large expanse of government activity, as the program for this conference illustrates. The OAIC can add value by highlighting principles or themes that can be applied across government. Four key messages that we have sought to convey in our existing work are, in summary:

  • All government decisions, policies and choices are rooted in information
  • Responsible, comprehensive, integrated information management is a core agency function
  • Government information is a national resource that should be available for community access and use
  • Open government is entwined with the pursuit of democratic accountability, integrity, innovation, civic engagement and customer service.

Combined, those four points highlight the need for agencies to give a high priority to information management and to open government objectives.

The OAIC has sought to promote those messages through publications, such as an Issues Paper, Towards a National Information Policy, and the Principles on Open Public Sector Information. Today I am pleased, as part of this Conference, to launch two new publications that develop further those information policy themes.

The first is a Guide to the Freedom of Information Act. The Guide provides a plain language introduction to the key provisions and mechanisms in the FOI Act. As well as describing the Act, the Guide places it within the information policy landscape. Topics that are covered include the development of the FOI Act in Australia, why FOI legislation is important, open government policy reforms that rely on other transparency mechanisms in addition to FOI, and the role that the OAIC plays in promoting open government in Australia. The Guide is designed for a wide audience. However, it is particularly aimed at assisting senior government leaders to maintain a lasting commitment to open government. A copy of the Guide is being mailed today to all Departmental secretaries.

The second new publication is an Issues Paper, Understanding the Value of Public Sector Information in Australia. Working from the premise that public sector information is a national resource, the paper queries why there is no accepted methodology for placing a value on that resource or measuring whether we use PSI efficiently. It is admittedly a complex challenge, not least because of the threshold need to identify the information to be valued and the concept of 'value'. Are we, for example, measuring the contribution government information plays in stimulating national economic growth or, rather differently, in advancing the quality of Australian democracy?

The difficulty of those question is not a reason for ignoring them and for treating information as an ephemeral or intalligible commodity, rather than a national resource. The Issues Paper is a first step in developing a methodology for valuing public sector information. It does this by describing the helpful research that has already been undertaken in Australia and abroad, and noting some of the gaps in existing research. The paper also proposes a survey of agency practices in order to build a better understanding of information management in Australian government.

I close by noting that the previous twelve months in the OAIC have been easier because of the cooperation we have received from agencies and the community. I invite you to continue that joint work in advancing government information policy in Australia.