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Cost and delay mark FOI path

By JOSEPHINE HUYNH: Most of the advice we receive as journalism students concerns our preparation and willingness to strive for the best quality information and sources. Walking into the unit Investigative Journalism however, the first words that came out of our tutor’s mouth were along the lines of “Prepare yourself for failure,” as he described how many of our Freedom of Information (FOI) requests will most probably not succeed.

The issues that individuals face with sending FOI requests are difficulty in framing a request, cost, handling delay and difficulty in challenging refusal of information. All these issues I have come across in my request.
When I embarked on my first FOI request, I thought it couldn’t be as difficult as they all say. You could guess, as most naive student journalists, I was, of course, wrong.

I had been recently following the axe of the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme in The Age.

On 28 February 2012, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change, Mark Dreyfus, announced that the Renewable Energy Bonus Scheme will close on June 30 2012.

In a press release on April 28, it was made clear that only systems bought or ordered before then would qualify for the rebate.

Solar retailers claim they have been blind sighted. However, Mr Dreyfus, reassures The Age this was not true. (Morton, 2012)

“This is good budget practice to shut a program of this nature in this way… We’re dealing with taxpayers’ dollars.” Mr Dreyfus said.

With the intention to further investigate with the possible angle of “Bonus scheme axed to avoid last minute fluctuation,” I sent my first FOI request on March 6, which read:
“I seek all documents created or received by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency relating to the decision to end the Renewable Bonus scheme.
In particular I request:
-Documents relating to advice on the financial impact of letting the scheme run until June 30 as appose to closing it earlier.
-Documents relating to any advice or plans about what notice to the public or industry should be given about to cut off.”

I lodged this request to the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (DCCEE) and also the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Within 4 hours I received an acknowledgment reply via email by the DCCEE. The email stated that from this date the statutory period for processing will commence.

On March 7, I received email acknowledgement from Le Trac, FOI Coordinator for the Department of Sustainability, telling me that she has transferred my request to the DCCEE, to whom I had also sent the request to. The next day I received this in signed letter form via mail.

At this point I was feeling confident. My requests were replied to promptly and the FOI officers that I had been in contact with seemed so far, very helpful.

That was until I found myself waiting over 3 weeks for the DCCEE to reply.
On March 30, Jasen Higuchi, Legal Officer for the DCCEE, finally sent an email stating that, in accordance with section 29 of the FOI Act, it has been decided that I was liable to pay a charge of $132.40 in respect of the processing of my request.

It was divided into 4 hours search and retrieval at $15 per hour, 5 hours of decision making time at no charge, 2.5 hours of decision making time at $20 per hour and the possible release of 224 pages at 10c per copy.

“In order for my request to continue to be processed a deposit of 25% must be made within 30 days,” he said.
Admittedly, I recklessly asked to waive the fee for the reason I was seeking documents as a University student solely for the purpose of an assignment, in the hope that the FOI officer would be more lenient.
That was my first mistake.

According to David Higgerson, Director of Trinity Mirror, one of UK’s largest newspaper publishers, before requesting an FOI, contact the FOI officer in charge of the request and ask for the release of information without going through the FOI process.

“An easier question for a journalist to ask than, say, a member of the public because journalists benefit from having access.” (Higgerson, 2010)

In the following class the atmosphere was grim. Some had positive experiences so far, others had even already received documents, however for the majority of us, such as myself, were not so fortunate.

As we all bickered to one another, I recalled back to the time when we were warned about what drawbacks we could encounter. I hate to say it, but then would have been the perfect time for our tutor to say “I told you so.”

In class I received advice to re-contact my FOI Officer and waive the fees on the grounds that; I am a journalist intending to publish on the University of Canberra NowUC website. In hindsight, it was foolish of me not to have sent this as my initial reply.

One week later, I received a reply asking to clarify on what grounds I was seeking to waive the fee.
“In making decision whether or not to impose fees, the decision maker must take into account whether disclosure of documents is in the public interest, and whether the payment of the fees would cause an FOI applicant financial hardship,” Jasen Higuchi said.

This was my second mistake. If I was more precise maybe these documents would be in my possession by now.
I requested to waive the fee on Monday April 16, on the grounds of financial hardship, and sent proof that I was university student engaging in full time study.

From that day I have yet to hear a reply.

According to Dr James Popple, Australian FOI Commissioner and ANU Lecturer, the most frequently raised issue in FOI complaints is processing delay. (Popple, 2011)

My FOI officer took an average of 16 days to reply.

In my opinion, 16 days is too long. From the suggested day to send my request to the deadline it only gave me a 26 day time frame.

A possible reason may be the digitalisation of documents, information can be held in more forms now, such as video and audio. (McMillan, 2012)

In a recent ABC Radio National Law report, Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, said, “30 years ago almost all information was held in hard copy form…Most information is now digitalised… There is quite a lot of effort in agencies to try and establish slightly less formal procedures.”

In today’s society, with the integration of new technologies shouldn’t the retrieval of such documents take less effort? Why is it that processing delay is the most complained about FOI issue? (Popple, 2011)

I spoke to fellow students in my class and it seems the influence of technology had a more positive affect on their requests.

Gregg Easton, UC Journalism student, also undertaking the unit Investigative Journalism, told me he was not charged any fee and even received more than 1000 pages of information sent to him on DVD by his FOI officer.
Sarah Bannerman, also a UC Journalism student in the same unit, said that her FOI officer recommended she withdraw her request to avoid the fee and instead summarised the requested documents into an email free of charge.

According to the DCCEE latest annual report (2011), the department received 76 requests under the FOI Act that year.

My request however, is still pending.

Perhaps mine will end up being just another figure.

The FOI Act has become a major tool for journalists seeking to uncover information. In their pursuit of information there are many setbacks in which they learn to persevere. I may not have received any documents but this process has taught me that persistence pays off and there is information out there beyond the internet.

This I will take advantage of when embarking on my next FOI request.

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