27 September 2023

Commissioner finds FoI a victim of COVID

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The Victorian public’s right and entitlement to access Government information has suffered during the COVID pandemic according to the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) which has accused Agencies of relying on broad exceptions to refuse Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

In his report State of Freedom of Information in Victoria: a special look at FOI from 2019 – 2021, Commissioner Sven Bluemmel included data on the administration of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) by State Government Agencies during the the two years.

“The data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing challenges in administering the FOI Act,” Mr Bluemmel said.

“This had a significant impact on some Agencies meeting their statutory obligations,” he said.

“There were also new challenges including reduced FOI resourcing where staff were re-allocated to public health efforts, and difficulties in processing FOI requests including conducting document searches due to remote working.”

Mr Bluemmel said one thing that didn’t change was the public’s appetite for information about how they were governed, with Agencies receiving 42,249 FOI requests.

The Commissioner said this was the highest number of requests ever received in Victoria and more than any other Australian jurisdiction.

He said between 2019 and 2021, Agencies made 80 per cent of FOI decisions within the statutory timeframe, down from 88 per cent in 2014 to 2019.

“This report clearly shows that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened existing challenges with the FOI Act and impeded the public’s right to gain timely access to government-held information” Mr Bluemmel said.

“It’s clear that the FOI Act needs to be updated to reflect modern public administration and the digital information environment,” he said.

“Concerningly, the report also shows that Victorian Government Agencies increasingly relied on broad exceptions to refuse FOI requests during the pandemic.”

He encouraged Agencies to build resilience in how they provided public access to Government information.

The OVIC’s 18-page Report can be accessed at this PS News link.

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