International Day for Universal Access to Information is 28 September
Author: David Royston-Jennings, Regional Risk Coordinator, LGMS
Informed communities can make informed decisions. Only when the public know how they are governed can they play an active role in the democratic process. Information is power and therefore, universal access to information is a cornerstone of healthy and inclusive societies.
Universal access to information means that everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information. Since its inception in 2002, the International Day for Universal Access to Information (previously known as Right to Know Day) has reinforced the role of government in promoting transparency and accountability. People need information. They need information from and about government. They need it to understand interactions with government, form opinions and educate themselves and others, to take actions and expose wrongs, and to seek justice and make decisions about the possibilities open to them. Essentially, access to information enables people to participate meaningfully in government processes.
Australia is among more than 120 countries with access to information laws. In Queensland, the Right to Information (RTI) and Information Privacy Acts both provide the mechanism through which citizens can apply for access to documents and information held by government departments, agencies, and – of course – local governments. Under this legislation, the information sought must be released. Access can only be refused if it would be contrary to the public interest to do so, and a detailed explanation of why this is the case must be provided (along with rights of review), where a formal application was made.
This supports the local government principles provided by the Local Government Act 2009, including transparent and effective processes, social inclusion and meaningful community engagement, and ethical and legal behaviour of councillors, local government employees and councillor advisors.
Each year, the Queensland Government publish an Annual Report on applications made under the Right to Information and Information Privacy Acts. In 2019-20, 1363 applications were made to council’s across Queensland under these pieces of legislation. This amounted to 186,071 pages of information relating to local government being considered for release under applications made pursuant to this legislation. Applicants were charged $93,984.90 collectively for application fees, access charges and processing charges in relation to RTI applications submitted to local governments across Queensland. Of the Queensland agencies and departments who received applications during the 2019-20 financial year, local government is second only to Queensland Health when it comes to the amount of fees and charges received, which emphasises the amount of information councils possess which is being sought by the public.
In order to identify relevant risks, the Office of the Information (OIC) Commissioner provide a number of self-audit tools and guidelines specific to local government.
By utilising the available tools, and working with colleagues at the OIC, council can strive towards compliance and, importantly, transparency and accountability, through successfully managing its access to information processes.
If not managed appropriately councils can risk non-compliance with the legislation. This could happen by not making information available which is in the public interest and which citizens have a right to access, or alternatively by releasing information which should not be disclosed, such as that which is personal (as recently considered in an LGM Liability article by Courtney Stoll and Kevin Johnson) or commercial-in-confidence. It is a high-risk area for council with significant reputational implications for the organisation if officers and decision-makers are not diligent in their information management processes.