Saturday, February 04, 2012

How easy is it really to source information from Australian governments?

On behalf of a friend I've been looking into the contact information for Freedom of Information (FOI) requests across Australia's Commonwealth and state/territory governments.

While I believe that Australia has good Freedom of Information laws (though I know some would disagree), the real tests of this are whether people are aware of their rights and how difficult it is to identify the right FOI contacts and the complexity of the processes to release information.

Working in government, I have contributed to FOI processes from the inside and studied the legislation and processes of some agencies, however I've personally never asked a government agency for information.

From my brief look into sourcing information, and from my friend's perspective, while legislation is in place and even recognising the internal cost and resourcing challenges of FOI, there's a lot still to be done to create a standard and usable framework for people to find out about FOI and contact agencies at both state and federal levels.

For example, only two states or territories (WA and VIC) have an obvious central FOI site for their governments. foi.wa.gov.au and foi.vic.gov.au.

Queensland has a similar site, at www.rti.qld.gov.au reflecting their 'Right To Information' legislation. While this is internally logical, it doesn't make sense in a broader usability context. At least if you do try to go to foi.qld.gov.au it does redirect you to the site.

The other states and territories hide their central FOI sites away behind strange and convoluted web addresses in agencies that make administrative sense within government, but may not be as obvious to the public.

For example, the site that appeared to be the central FOI information source for NSW has the web address of: http://www.ombo.nsw.gov.au/complaints/freedominfo.html (though I could be wrong - which also points to an issue) and Tasmania appears to uses http://www.ombudsman.tas.gov.au/right_to_information2/rti_process

None of these sites is actually the central repository of information released by these governments - which would also be immensely useful. Instead they are informational sites which push people to contact individual agencies for specific FOI requests.

If I were asked I would recommend that all state and territory governments - and the Australian Government - use a standard FOI website address, and cross-link them for people who end up at the wrong one. Regardless of legislation name or the organisation which centrally administers FOI legislation, these sites should be found at foi..gov.au (or for the Commonwealth at foi.gov.au).

These sites should also become the central release points for FOI information, using modern web technologies such as APIs, or even ATOM/RSS to aggregate FOIed information from all agencies. The information could be retained by agencies, but have the central FOI site as a searchable directory of FOI releases pointing to individual agencies - like data.gov.au's role for public sector information (open data).

From there I'd also advocate that agencies similarly apply a standard approach to FOI, using foi..gov.au and foi...gov.au for state and territory agencies.

This consistency would, at least, mean that people could be educated consistently on where to go to find out their rights and exercise them.

Moving on to individual agency contact information, I've looked into whether there is a single list at Commonwealth level for all FOI contacts across all agencies.

I did find that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet maintained a list of agencies with FOI Contact Officer phone numbers - an excellent start. However as it was last updated in September 2011 it had not yet captured the machinery of government changes in the last Ministerial reshuffle.

The list did not, however, provide website or email addresses - channels most people today prefer to find government information (as AGIMO's latest report on Interacting with Government ‑ Australians’ use and satisfaction with e-Government Services 2011 will tell you).

Fortunately, via Twitter, @Maxious let me know that OpenAustralia had compiled a spreadsheet of Australian Government FOI contacts based on the agencies and Ministers subject to FOI from the Office of the Information Commissioner FOI Annual Report for 2010-11 (released in July 2011) and updated for the machinery of government changes last December.

This spreadsheet contained 12% more agencies and Ministers than the list provided on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. However while it contained email and website addresses, the OpenAustralia spreadsheet didn't containcontact phone numbers.

So I spent about an hour matching the two lists and have released the combined information as a Google spreadsheet, FOI contacts for Australian government agencies.

This spreadsheet contains FOI contact details for 355 Australian Government agencies with varying levels of details (phone numbers for 86%, email addresses for 66% and FOI web pages for 60%).

It also contains information for state and territory central FOI agencies.

If anyone out there is interested in FOI I would appreciate if you added to the list, filling in any gaps :)

Looking at the list, there is enormous variability in the email addresses and web addresses used for FOI contacts. Surely the Australian Government could mandate for a standard foi@.gov.au for email and foi..gov.au for websites.

Also agencies could ensure they have appropriate search strategies in place to make this information easily findable in their sites - creating a google site map (which has many other agency benefits) and adding rules in their site's internal search engine to ensure that searches for 'FOI', 'Freedom of Information', 'Information', 'My Information', 'Right to Information' and similar terms (drawing from internal search reports) have the FOI page as their top or preferred result.

These steps would be far more useful in helping Australians locate and access FOI information than many more expensive and difficult activities.

Also, surely someone in government (perhaps the Office of the Information Commissioner) could maintain a public list of FOI contacts - set-up in such a way that agencies could maintain their own information and receive regular automated emails every six months or so to confirm their information remains correct.

This could even draw from the list I've compiled from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and OpenAustralia lists to start it off.

State and territory governments could do likewise - and perhaps link their lists to the Australian Government's list, so that the public - who often have no idea whether they need to go to a state/territory or Commonwealth agency for certain information - have a better chance of figuring out who they should first contact.

Freedom of Information is important and necessary for any democratic society. However simply having the legislation in place is not enough.

Governments need to take steps, such as I've suggested above, to make it easy to discover who to contact and explaining the process of how to contact them and what information may be released.

Without these steps, 'Freedom of Information' or 'Right to Information' become meaningless catchcries.

4 comments:

  1. Great ideas Craig. I'd also suggest getting the information published as linked open data so that it can be mined for useful connections by semantic browsers, app developers etc. Might turn your spreadsheet into RDF when I get a chance if that's okay and see what value can be added to it.

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  2. Thanks :)

    Also note the OpenAustralia spreadsheet - they've included a few administrative columns I left out of mine.

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  3. Certainly very valuable Craig. I contacted the OAIC to see if they had an email list that could be drawn on with a view to making it easy at mind end to contact agencies to lodge an FOI request concerning employee engagement surveys.

    All they could suggest is that I track down email links on agency web sites. I've had professional dealing with the OAIC and they are a great bunch doing great work. So this should help them out.

    As an aside, I got a response form the ATO concerning my FOI request ion in relation to their employee engagement survey. They have refused (as it their right of course), but it is the grounds that make interesting reading. I will be putting up a post on this and raising some issues that really need to be in the public domain.

    Cheers - Steve

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  4. FOI is, by definition, an area where contacts info must be easy to find, but there are many other areas where a similar approach would be helpful eg. copyright queries.

    I’d add legislation to the list, but the relevant agencies have already put in place consistent URLs and redirects. Check out these links:

    www.legislation.gov.au
    www.legislation.nsw.gov.au
    www.legislation.vic.gov.au
    www.legislation.qld.gov.au
    www.legislation.wa.gov.au
    www.legislation.sa.gov.au
    www.legislation.tas.gov.au
    www.legislation.act.gov.au
    www.legislation.nt.gov.au

    Of course, you can’t yet go from specific legislation in one jurisdiction to the equivalent legislation in the next, but that’s a whole new can of worms!

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