Federal Freedom of Information and the disappearing documents

The Freedom of Information Act is a heck of a document. One of the most important features of it is section 11C which relates to “Freedom of Information Disclosure Logs”.

The Act sets out pretty clear ways that those responsible for delivering FOI services should respond (emphasis mine):

The agency, or the Minister, must publish the information to members of the public generally on a website by:

a) making the information available for downloading from the website; or

b) publishing on the website a link to another website, from which the information can be downloaded; or

c) publishing on the website other details of how the information may be obtained.

Given the above, you can see there’s a clear order and spirit of how access should be easy to what has been successfully requested. To me, this reads like c) is designed to be a catch all to not be prescriptive of what technology must be used.

I’ve recently been making FOI requests with the Department of Human Services and looking at their disclosure log. They started out doing the right thing in 2011 with documents available for download, recently though there’s been a lot more entries on the disclosure log which state “email us for access to the documents”.

This seemed completely counterintuitive and would cause unnecessary busywork for the department where they have enough to do as it is.

This is an unnecessary barrier that appears to serve no purpose other than to be lazy, obstructive or secretive and against the FOI act spirit.

I wanted to see if this was just an isolated incident, or is this systemic?

The Office of the Information Commissioner has rightly so set the tone for how other departments should setup their logs since 2011.

It’s a simple, easy to read/search design with the documents requested described clearly and all downloadable straight from the website since 2011! They even have a bonus RSS feed for the nerds. Perfect!

I decided to check with Federal Government departments websites and ask some pretty basic questions to see if they’re up to my (and hopefully your) expectations:

  • Can I download FOI request documents at all in requests dated 2018?
  • How many FOI requests were successful this year?
  • If documents are unable to be downloaded at all — what year did they stop entirely?
  • Are ALL the requests available in 2018? (any omissions unavailable for download with the ‘contact us’ double-handling delay — I call these “strategic” omissions)
  • Do they have an RSS feed?

Asking these questions I found out there are four distinct classes of departments and some interesting results along the way.

The Leaders of the Pack

These departments had no strategic omissions in 2018 with all documents available for download. Good work and congratulations!

Department of Communications and the Arts
Department of Industry, Innovation and Science
Department of Social Services
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Treasury
Department of Finance

The Department of Finance is the only one with a working RSS Feed.

Special credit to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet — they have been the fourth most busy department in releasing successful requests in 2018 with greater than 50 releases this year alone and thus the busiest in this class.

The Tricky Ones

These departments had strategic omissions in 2018, not all documents are available for download and use the “please contact us for access” excuse.

Department of Defence
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Department of Health
Department of Home Affairs
Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development

DFAT is the only Department to even address this issue directly:

A link is provided if the documents can be downloaded from the disclosure log or another website. If the document is not available for downloading, please request a copy by email to: foi@dfat.gov.au.

In some instances, documents may need to undergo further deletions so they can be released to an individual other than the original FOI applicant.

This is a weird sort of status — FOI’s are made by members of public. Personal information FOI’s should not be on the log. This may be some sort of concession that some members of the public get some form of ‘special access’? Journalists? Researchers? Only DFAT knows thus far.

In technical terms the request a copy by email is bizarre as email is an absolutely horrible file transfer mechanism should this be the method used.

Government organisations often have attachment sending limits well below what is available for download on most websites — 10 MB in some instances. It does not explicitly say how they’d get the data to you though.

Confusingly on the Department of Health disclosure log, all entries come with the note:

Please contact the FOI team via email at foi@health.gov.au to request a copy of this/these document/s.

Despite the document being available next to the vast majority of them.

The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development has the least omissions and also almost least amount of FOIs in 2018 which is the most puzzling — the easiest to meet what’s expected yet they don’t.

Special credit to the Department of Defence — one of the few departments with a working & up to date RSS Feed!

Fallen in with a bad crowd recently

This department entirely relied upon the “contact us for access” excuse for documents in 2018 and previously used to have documents available for download.

Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

They only stopped in 2017! What happened! This should not continue.

DILLIGAF

These Departments appear to have stopped caring a long time ago — but it’s never too late to mend.

Department of Jobs and Small Business
Department of Education and Training
Attorney-General’s Department
Department of Human Services
Department of the Environment and Energy
Department of Veterans’ Affairs

The best department out of the bad lot here is (surprisingly to me) the Department of Human Services who only stopped offering any downloads in 2014. The worst of the worst is a tie between the Department of the Environment and Energy and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs who never even started offering downloads in 2011.

The Department of Jobs and Small Business appears to have employed the same web developer or used the same product for their FOI disclosure log portal as the Department of Education and Training. I’m not sure who has copied who — but it’s impossible to tell by looking at the main page whether there are any documents available for the request which made this unnecessarily difficult to check on my tests and for anyone browsing the site.

Update: I’ve been informed this is due to the departments merger and de-merger resulting in a Shared Services function.

Conclusion

Seven out of eighteen departments above are not meeting even half way the spirit of the FOI act and providing the documents available for download. Why did they stop uploading? why did some never even upload?

This is concerning. Questions need to be asked as well as attempts made to repair damage so far and hopefully prevent further decay in this area.

So I have made some bulk freedom of information requests thanks to the batch request feature of the Right To Know website.

I have four templates:

  1. Thank the Leaders
  2. Ask the Tricky Ones for the unlisted documents
  3. Encourage those that have fallen behind with the missing documents
  4. Discipline the DILLIGAF’s by asking for the missing documents.

This is a developing story and updates will be available on the links above to each category and this article may be updated with the results.

The numbers (now out of date) and further detail from when I began this research are available here.