The theme of Building Trust was the focus of the FOI in WA conference recently. Trust was explored in two ways. Firstly, considering how Freedom of Information (FOI) can build public trust in government; and secondly, advice and inspiration to help practitioners trust themselves and the FOI process to meet the objects of the FOI Act (WA):
to enable the public to participate more effectively in governing the State’ and to make the persons and bodies that are responsible for State and local government more accountable to the public.
Emeritus Professor Geoff Gallop AC gave the keynote presentation. He discussed the role of openness as a foundation for democracy. This is based on the view that information held by government is a public resource which should be used for public benefit; and that the community has a right to be informed about government operations.
FOI and information governance
FOI is focused on making government information accessible to the public and access is at the heart of information governance.
Information governance in the FOI context involves balancing the rights of different stakeholders and protecting their interests in relation to certain information – and then enabling or preventing access, accordingly.
Much of the conference conversation focused on the challenge of balancing transparency and openness with requirements for privacy, data protection and security. The challenges are both practical, emphasising the need for strong information governance; and personal, requiring an organisational culture that embraces information rights.
Challenging regulatory landscape
The role and impact of information is growing, in all aspects of life, work and society. People are demanding greater transparency, accountability and participation in decision making – not only from government but from organisations as diverse as financial institutions, extractive industries, the media and NGOs. We see emerging and changing views of data ownership and information rights in an evolving regulatory landscape.
Catherine Fletcher, WA Information Commissioner, considered a variety of statistics on information access and trends across Australian jurisdictions. She described ‘first generation’ FOI laws which rely on requests to ‘pull’ information out of an organisation’s systems.
Catherine contrasted this with ‘second generation’ FOI laws that emphasise proactive disclosure to ‘push’ information into the public domain. She highlighted an apparent correlation in the data, suggesting that ‘push’ laws can reduce the number of requests that have to be processed, encouraging requests that are more complex and require greater consideration prior to release.
For staff in agencies, trying to navigate a growing and increasingly fragmented regulatory landscape, fear of making a mistake can lead to risk-averse (information-withholding) behaviours.
This challenge was well illustrated in the presentation by Patrick Ky from State Solicitor’s Office, who spoke about balancing rights and managing conflicts. He noted there are many different types of privacy, not only information privacy. These different types are converging with the evolution of technology and as such, privacy is becoming increasingly important.
Rather than being opposing forces, Patrick described the common purpose of both privacy and FOI to ‘render transparent the activities of the State, but render non-transparent the activities of individuals.’ Privacy facilitates free speech and freedom of association, so the two concepts are intertwined and there is a strong public interest in protecting privacy.
The human factors: culture and practice
The Victorian Deputy Commissioner for Public Access, Joanne Kummrow, reflected: Information rights are human rights, and empathy is essential in making decisions about information access.
In the digital environment, our trust in people, organisation and systems enables things to run; and transactions to take place. Openness is essential for effective government and successful business, but it’s not yet business as usual.
Throughout the day, conference participants had the opportunity to respond to a number of survey questions. Some of the interesting responses were:
- 83% of respondents consider it part of their role to promote the proactive release of information
- 83% felt the most effective way to improve access to information is by changing organisation culture and practice
- 44% “somewhat agree” that their organisation has a pro-disclosure culture; 27% agree or strongly agree; and 29% disagree or strongly disagree.
In a panel discussion, Ian Cowie spoke about the role of leadership and his responsibility as CEO of the City of Gosnells to create a culture where people feel empowered and confident to release information.
I presented a session about my Open By Design research, which looks at how information governance and automation can change the way people think and feel about openness. Making openness safer and easier can drive culture change and move organisations beyond the ‘push’ or ‘pull’ of information, towards the exchange of knowledge.
Damian Shepherd, Director State Records WA, argued that the value of information is lost if it is not accessible and cannot be used. He highlighted the role of information in reconciling with the past or planning for the future.
Damian emphasised the importance of recordkeeping to ensure information is easily accessible for FOI, remains accessible for the long term, and the need for an interdisciplinary approach. He noted the massive investment in digital transformation initiatives across every jurisdiction and suggested this is the perfect opportunity to reform information policy and practice.
You can read more about the conference and access the session presentations here.
Sonya Sherman, Industry Solutions Director (Public Sector) and InfoGovANZ Advisory Board member