FOI culture in Victoria needs better public sector leadership: study

Creating a positive freedom of information culture in Victoria is essential for accountability and transparency, according to a study by Monash University and the Office of the Victorian Information Commission.

  • Freedom of information (FOI) practitioners ranked government executives as more important than political leadership in building a positive and well-functioning FOI culture.
  • FOI officers’ efforts to provide information are sometimes restricted by executive management at agencies that don’t see FOI as a priority.
  • This pilot study was commissioned by the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) with support from Monash University.

Creating a positive freedom of information (FOI) culture in Victoria is underpinned by improved public service leadership, rather than political leadership of the agency, a new report shows.

A pilot study, commissioned by the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) with support from Monash University, shows that most FOI practitioners are sincere and passionate about providing the public with access to government-held information.

However, the FOI officers’ efforts are at times hampered by executive managements at agencies that don’t regard FOI as a priority.

The study included six Victorian government agencies, ranging from small government departments and local councils, to large government departments. An initial online survey of FOI practitioners was followed by focus groups and interviews with 27 FOI officers.

The principal aim of the study was to determine if the culture of administering FOI in Victoria could be captured, and identify ways to improve FOI laws and systems to provide the community with easier access to government information.

The key finding was that FOI practitioners ranked government executives as more important than political leadership in building a positive and well-functioning FOI culture.

The pilot study was implemented and the report authored by Associate Professor Johan Lidberg from the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University.

“The principal justification for governments passing and implementing laws that allow the public a means of independently accessing government information is accountability,” Associate Professor Lidberg said.

“One of the cornerstones in mature liberal democratic systems of governance is that those who wield power in society must also be held to account for how this power is executed.”

Based on the concrete recommendations in the report, the pilot study clearly demonstrated that the culture of implementing FOI can be captured.

The study also highlighted the importance of agencies adopting proactive information disclosure policies. These two findings comprise a quarter of the eight recommendations to OVIC made in the report.

“Another important takeaway from the project was the breadth of attitudes to proactive release of information held by FOI practitioners. The majority viewed proactive release as the norm, whereas others took the view that their job was to administer the FOI Act only,” Associate Professor Lidberg said.

He believes more research is needed to map the prevailing attitudes across government agencies in more detail.

“The public’s right to access information is crucial for accountability and leads to better policy outcomes,” said Victorian Information Commissioner Sven Bluemmel. “I would encourage public sector leaders to facilitate the proactive release of information where possible.”

In the next phase of the project, OVIC, and several other jurisdictions, will partner with Monash University researchers to seek funding from the Australian Research Council.

It’s proposed the next, more comprehensive, phase of the study will survey a greater number of government agencies.

OVIC will host Associate Professor Lidberg to discuss the findings and key recommendations of this report on Tuesday 29 October. For more information about this event and to read the report in full, please visit ovic.vic.gov.au.