Freedom of Information (FOI)- An Argument for the Price of Secrecy Governments are happy to provide reporters with everything they want under the Freedom of Information Acts, unless it happens to be newsworthy. At least that is the way it seems for reporters who find themselves playing hide and seek with bureaucrats. (Conley, 1997, p. 132)The objective of this essay is to give an insight into the administration of FOI agencies in the context of Price of Secrecy, a front-page article from The Australian. It is presumed that in a democratic society that all areas of the government should be open to examination from the public.
It is this openness that would result in providing a forum for the effective debate on public policies as well as accountability from the government for their decisions and mistakes. This is what the FOI act hopes to achieve, within the act are certain limitations in the form of exemptions that are necessary for the protection of essential public interests and private or business affairs of persons in respect of whom information is collected and held by government agencies ( Needs to Know, 1999)The FOI act introduced in Australia on the first of December 1982 has three main objectives according to Chadwick (1985).
Firstly, it is to give everyone a legally enforceable right to access unpublished government information. Secondly, it compels governments to publish information about the way they work and the records they hold. Especially about the confusing structure and composition of the way government decisions are made. Lastly, It gives everyone the right to insist that any information that the government holds about him or her is accurate.
According to Waters (1999), it is the opinion of most journalists that though FOI is cumbersome and frustrating, it does work, thus proving that though the FOI laws have recently fallen short of expectations, it does achieve its aims eventually. The journalists task is linked with the soul of FOI. (Chadwick, 1985, p. 14) as the media plays an integral role in ensuring the public is an informed one, especially in our media reliant information society. However, the journalists of prominent newspapers in Australia are heavily disappointed in the FOI act.
The reasons cited for not using the act include complexity and insufficient understanding of their position. The FOI officers in charge of the decision to allow information to be given out to journalists have been ambiguous in their support of the act, some are duly committed to the idea of an open government, and some are deliberately obstructive. Too many of them seem to regard their gatekeeper role as some sort of game, with only the most knowledgeable and skilful opponents deserving of success. (Waters, 1999, p. 17) This sort of attitude also leads to a lack of immediacy and delays regarding the requests.
Journalists are not only increasingly frustrated with the way their FOI requests have been handled, but even more so with the ridiculous amounts they have had to pay for the information. The Australian s investigation into this matter revealed that The Herald Sun was quoted 1. 25 million and was told it would take 62,840 hours to process their claim (for details of federal parliamentary travel expenses) (Little, 1999). It is not the initial application fees that pose a problem for the enquiring journalist, rather the hefty fees that are incurred in the subsequent stages of their requests and worse still, if they have to appeal refusals.
The cost of access is widely perceived as a major weakness in the FOI act, The Freedom of Information s Laws Amendment Act 1986 introduced application fees for requests and internal reviews and hourly rates for the processing of requests by agencies were also established. (Harrison and Cossins, 1983, p. 9). This has proved to be a major impediment to journalists who considerably fear running up significant bills from their FOI requests without a guarantee of success. Exemptions are another area that journalists feel that they are being short-changed.
According to Waters (1999), Journalists feel that cabinet documents, Commercial in Confidence documents and personal privacy are the most overused excuses for withholding information, and even worse are the growing number of privatised or corporatised bodies which are completely exempt from FOI laws. The response of state bureaucracies and ministerial staff, when FOI was introduced, was to stamp even the lunch list for ministerial officers as in confidence for cabinet so it therefore become a cabinet document and not subject to FOI (Little, 1999, p. 7).
When FOI documents become increasingly difficult to access, the journalist becomes ever the more convinced that the government has something to hide. Though the above may seem like a subjective point of view from the journalists spurned by FOI laws, it must be taken into account that even before these accusations were made, it was recognised that the FOI had problems with administration. These problem areas were examined in a Report on Investigation of Administration of FOI in Commonwealth Agencies. (Needs to Know, June1999) The report makes several suggestions, of which the following are significant to this essay.
Recommendations noted include that agencies review procedures for disclosure of information to encourage, where appropriate, the public disclosure of information in recourse to the FOI act. This is in support of avoiding unnecessary costs and making as much information as possible available to the public. Another important recommendation is for agencies to review arrangements and authorisations for internal review of FOI decisions to ensure that the internal review of FOI decisions is discernibly at arm s length to the initial decision maker.
The investigation for this report found that at times, the initial FOI decision maker had been given the task of preparing a draft decision for an internal review of that decision! It is clearly inappropriate to have the initial decision maker to have any direct involvement in the internal review. It is also the concern of the report that some agencies may be setting unreasonably high charges to process FOI documents, and it is their recommendation that some sort of quality-control procedure to monitor the charges and to ensure the charges are reasonable, is in place.
Other recommendations include reviewing the training needs of FOI decision makers and developing appropriate FOI training programs. The report ends with a letter from the Secretary of the Attorney General s Department, and the concluding statement of this letter is that this department will continue to consider and take into account the recommendations in the report as appropriate (Needs to Know, June1999). The September news coverage of the FOI feature commented on this report and also a similiar earlier report, and it is their concluding statement that none of them (recommendations) has been acted upon.
The aim of The Australian s controversial article could be to embarrass the government into releasing information; the more important possible objective of the article was to put this issue under media spotlight to build public awareness and resistance against a closed government. Open government will always be in conflict with the short-term interests of a news organization; the reporters need the information for their stories and to gain a competitive advantage, and the government is naturally cautious in presuming that the information they give out might be used against them.
A balance must be reached between the attitudes of both groups. The journalists should engage in better training and information of the FOI laws and regard FOI as a tool to assist them in their reports and less of a double edged sword. A change in attitude is just as vital for the politicians and bureaucrats in understanding that if the message they keep giving out is to minimise disclosure, then it is inevitable that the administrative practises that offset public interests will always be open to misinterpretation.