New report exposes critical issues and highlights reforms needed in Freedom of Information culture and practices

Monash University

A robust Freedom of Information (FOI) process ensures independent access to government-held information, empowering the public, political opposition and journalists to hold governments and other institutions accountable. A new report from Monash University addressing the culture and attitudes towards FOI will be launched today.

The report, The culture of implementing Freedom of Information in Australia, examines key aspects of FOI culture and practices, proposing significant reforms to the FOI system.

Associate Professor of Journalism at Monash University, Johan Lidberg, a lead researcher of the report, emphasised the importance of accountability in liberal democracies.

“A well-functioning and comprehensive FOI system acts as a deterrent against corruption within political systems, as those involved are aware of the high likelihood of being exposed. It also empowers the public with independent access to information, enabling greater participation in the political process and fostering a healthier democratic environment,” he said.

Researchers undertook 377 surveys as well as interviews with 257 individuals at 96 agencies from hospitals, government departments, statutory agencies, local government and universities across Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

Key findings from the report highlighted issues such as informational bottlenecks, inadequate resources, and a lack of understanding or commitment to FOI principles beyond dedicated FOI teams in government agencies.. A culture of ‘damage control’ and reluctance to release sensitive information was found to create significant challenges for FOI coordinators, who struggle to comply with legislation while perpetually underfunded in terms of staffing. The report underscores the critical need for adequate funding to support FOI processes, promoting transparency and the effective operation of FOI Acts.

“FOI practitioners across the board possess a deep knowledge and understanding of the purposes, functions and challenges facing the FOI processes in their respective states. It’s incumbent upon their agencies and state commissioners to listen to their insights. Practitioners want to make FOI work better,” Associate Professor Lidberg said

Notably, the report also reveals a concerning lack of engagement from government ministers, despite their pivotal role in upholding FOI provisions. Associate Professor Lidberg said the lack of engagement from this group was both disappointing, but also an important finding in itself.

“The one group with the most potential impact on FOI functionality did not judge access to information important enough to contribute their views to the study. Until government ministers prioritise FOI/access to information on their policy agenda, little is likely to change,” he said.

The report recommends several legislative and administrative changes to improve FOI culture and practices. These include modernising terminology and procedures to reflect digital environments, streamlining consultation requirements, ensuring realistic legislative timeframes, developing proactive release policies, and providing recurring, sector-specific FOI training.

The report will be officially launched via webinar on Tuesday 18 June 2024 from 1pm to 2pm where the findings will be summarised by the research team and the Information Commissioners and Ombudsman will respond to the findings and recommendations in the report in a panel discussion. Registration for the free event is available here.

/Public Release. View in full here.