One barrier after another
By RUSSELL AYRES
FREEDOM of Information is playing a larger role in investigative journalism than at any other time.
Changes to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws are making it easier to access information that was previously difficult to obtain.
This is especially the case in the ACT where it is free to lodge an FOI application (since November 2010), which is not the case in other jurisdictions such as New South Wales.
Being able to obtain this information has meant that it is easier for journalists to lodge FOI requests in a bid to uncover malfeasance amongst political players, government departments and much more.
Government departments at Federal and Local levels are often keen to cooperate with these requests so that they look open and accountable to the public.
Not all government departments are up to speed with the process, however, as this student journalist came to find out the hard way.
The ACT Government is constantly changing names, portfolios and more, which made this particular FOI request extremely difficult to follow through.
No longer does the ACT government comprise of departments, but instead they are split into directorates, which effectively sit under the one ‘department’, the ACT Government.
So when this student journalist decided to submit an FOI request to those that are responsible for making decisions relating to environment and climate change in the ACT, a quick Google search turned up the specific FOI request form for the Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate.
The rest should have been simple. Fill in the form, submit and wait.
I filled in the form, I submitted the form by post, which was the only available option according to the form, and I waited. Then I waited some more and then I waited some more.
Government departments or directorates in the case of the ACT, have 30 days after receiving a request, to notify the applicant of a decision on a request for documents via the FOI process.
They have just 14 days to notify the applicant that they have at least received an FOI request.
The FOI request I submitted to the Environment and Sustainable Development was posted on 8 March 2012.
Having not heard anything at all from the directorate, I started chasing the FOI request on 17 April 2012.
Giving the directorate the benefit of the doubt and saying the application took a week to get to the desk of the FOI officer via the post, it was at least a month that passed without even notification that the FOI was received.
This was despite having both my postal details and personal email address on the FOI Request Form.
So I referred to the form, which I had a copy of saved on my computer, and the chasing began.
To contact any ACT Directorate, you need to go through Canberra Connect. The FOI form had no contact details at all.
After waiting on hold for nearly 10 minutes with Canberra Connect, I reached an operator.
They asked who I intended to reach and so I referred to the FOI request form, which stated ‘FOI Coordinator, Department of the Environment, Climate Change, Energy and Water’.
The operator thought I was after a Federal Department because ACT Government departments no longer existed.
After a little back and forth, I was eventually placed on hold while the operator put me through to the directorate, Environment and Sustainable Development.
As luck would have it after such a lengthy phone call, no one was there and the operator was kind enough to give me the ‘direct number’.
A few hours later I called the number I was given and it directed me straight to an automated response that said ‘no voice mail is attached to this number’. Back to Canberra Connect I went.
The second time was far simpler. I reached an operator and having learned my lesson I asked for the FOI Coordinator for the Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate. Success! Or so I thought.
I was informed by the Environment and Sustainable Development directorate that no electronic record of my request was created and therefore, it must not have been received, and could it be re-sent?
Back to square one, I re-sent my FOI request, as arguing with the directorate would have been fruitless. It was my word against theirs when it comes to whether post had indeed been received or not (disregarding registered mail of course).
Luckily I was given an email address the second time and I was able to send it to the right place directly.
After sending in the FOI request via email, I received a reasonably quick reply that my original FOI request had indeed been received by post and the acknowledgement had been sent by post to the wrong address!
Not only was the form labelled incorrectly, ‘The Department of the Environment, Climate Change, Energy and Water’, and the form was required to be sent by post, but as a final insult, the acknowledgement of receipt of the FOI request was sent back by post and to the wrong address!
To rub salt into the wound, the reply stated that the FOI request was too broad, I needed to narrow it down and due to this they would be unable to meet the 30 day deadline.
It was a reply that felt extremely weak given the mishandling of the request although I must acknowledge that the email did contain an apology, which of course was appreciated.
These critical errors had wasted a monumental amount of time, especially as these errors could have been so easily addressed.
The Gpvernment should correct the FOI Request Form and allow them to be sent via email like so many other government departments allow.
Furthermore, if replies are going to be sent by post, even though an email address is supplied, then at least double check to ensure the acknowledgement receipt is sent to the correct address.
The ACT ombudsman proposed a 10 point plan to improve ACT Government service delivery, entitled ‘Room for Improvement’. Points 9a and 9b were directly relevant to this set of events.
9a states that there must be an identifiable agency/body/person responsible for progressing any kind of application for a benefit/service, while 9b simply states that no one should fall through the cracks (Ombudsman, 2011).
Using forms with old department names and contacts ensured that there wasn’t a clearly identifiable agency or person responsible for my FOI request.
Not providing an email address for the form to be sent to in the first place and responding by post meant the request I submitted most definitely fell through the cracks.
As a result of the mismanagement of my FOI request, deadlines have passed and it has meant the FOI request has had to be withdrawn.
It is a mess that has helped no one and could so easily have been avoided.
The ACT Government is telling its people that it wants to be more open, more accountable and a fair government.
This was a situation that did not meet the criteria.
It really was an FOI fail.