The importance of information issues within and outside of government has risen dramatically in the last three years, says Australia’s Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan. The Australian Government is increasingly aware of their responsibility to make Government information available to the public. At the same time, there is an increasing public awareness of the right to privacy, which can be seen through the introduction of privacy reforms due to commence on 12 March 2014. Professor McMillan shares with FutureGov his thoughts on changes in the sphere of information policy, privacy and freedom of information (FOI), and how the Australian Government and Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) have kept pace with these.
Balancing information management, freedom and privacy
Although the OAIC was established in 2010, Australia has had a FOI Act and a Privacy Act since 1982 and 1988, respectively. “Privacy and freedom of information are compatible objectives that must be balanced in a broader setting of responsible information management. At the same time, government information must be valued and managed as a national resource to be shared with business and the community. These are just two reasons why it makes sense to bring the functions within one office,” said Professor McMillan. The OAIC brings these two areas together along with a general responsibility for providing information policy advice to the Australian Government. Reflecting these three responsibilities, the Office has three Commissioners for Information Policy, Privacy and FOI, respectively. As an independent statutory office, the OAIC has a range of regulatory functions across the three areas of responsibilities, balancing them in a coherent setting of promoting responsible information management.
In the 1970s, Professor McMillan was a founding member of the Freedom of Information Campaign Committee which led the public campaign for enactment of the FOI Act. As the inaugural Information Commissioner, he is now involved in all three areas of information management and is for promoting Australia’s information policy agenda. This states that the Government’s default position is that Government-held information is a national resource. Underlying this transformation is the objective to “change the culture of government from information control to information sharing”, promoting strong engagement with the eight Principles on Open Public Sector Information: “FOI issues are now a concern at a much higher level — at the executive level — in agencies,” he says.
Government information as a national resource
An important positive outcome of the OAIC’s work over the last three years has been recognition across government of the importance of information issues. “For example, a key message we convey from the FOI Act is that government information is now a national resource. This concept that government should be open by default has been recognised and embraced. Equally, we’ve successfully encouraged agencies to better describe government information as public sector information,” McMillan explained. To support their ongoing education around embedding open access to information, in the last year the OAIC also surveyed 190 government agencies on how they manage information.
Engaged community and political leadership
The last 12 months have been an extraordinarily busy time for the OAIC — an indication of how engaged and sensitised people have become to information issues, claims Professor McMillan. The Office has seen an increase in complaints and review applications by about 15 per cent a year. In light of the major privacy reforms underway, the OAIC is seeing an increased interest in all its areas of responsibility, not just FOI: “With major reforms of the Privacy Act, there has been higher degree of awareness of just how significant these reforms are in the digital age.” Political leadership on both sides in Australia strongly support the need for digital innovation and this aligns very well with the theme of the OAIC’s work. At the same time, there is a strong emphasis in government on budgetary efficiency and reform of government structures.
“Budgetary restrictions and reducing staffing numbers require a strong focus on prioritisation of work to meet performance benchmarks,” says Professor McMillan. Having begun dialogue with the new Government, Professor McMillan hopes there will be strong alignment between the new Government’s program and the core messages of the Office, focused on transparency, privacy protection, and valuing information. Professor McMillan will be speaking at FutureGov Summit Australia in Canberra on 2-3 December 2013 on re-thinking the government’s role with open data.