Freedom of Information Amendments proposed

On 23 August 2018 the Senate referred the Freedom of Information Legislation Amendment (Improving Access and Transparency) Bill 2018 to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 30 November 2018.

Here is OpenAustralia Foundation’s submission to the Senate in response.

Prepared by Ben Fairless, Katherine Szuminska, James Polley, Matthew Landauer

Amends the: Archives Act 1983 to require the reporting of external legal expenses incurred by the National Archives of Australia; Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 to: ensure that the Information Commissioner holds specified qualifications; and require the separate appointment of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Commissioner; and Freedom of Information Act 1982 to: enable the transfer of Information Commissioner reviewable decisions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT); require the consistent application of exemptions by decision makers in the context of a review by the Information Commissioner; prevent the Information Commissioner from making FOI decisions if he or she does not hold specified qualifications; prevent agencies from publishing FOI information until at least 10 days after the applicant has received his or her copy of the information; and require the reporting of external legal expenses for each Information Commission or AAT FOI matter that has concluded.

Bills of the current Parliament

The OpenAustralia Foundation would like to thank the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for extending this opportunity to make a submission to the Committee’s inquiry into the Freedom of Information Legislation Amendment (Improving Access and Transparency) Bill 2018 (the Bill).

Over the last few years the government has acted to undermine and disempower the OAIC, reducing scrutiny of its actions and limiting access of citizens to government information. We broadly support the intentions of the amendments as they serve to reduce some of the ways in which the OAIC has been undermined.

We broadly support the intentions of these amendments, as laid out in the explanatory memorandum, and comment on a number of the amendments.

We recommend that the committee support many of the following proposed amendments

The OpenAustralia Foundation (OAF) recommends that the committee support many of the the amendments proposed in the Freedom of Information Legislation Amendment (Improving Access and Transparency) Bill 2018 (the Bill).

The OpenAustralia Foundation recommends the committee support proposed amendment 1 –  the Archives Act 1983, 55B, reporting on legal expenses we support this amendment.We further encourage the committee to consider if, in 2018, it isn’t unnecessary to wait up to 12 months for the public to know how much the government spent on external lawyers to challenge Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We therefore respectfully further suggest that this information be required to be ongoingly reported. For example, this information could be declared publicly online within 30 days, in a machine readable format, on their own website, and uploaded to a public repository such as Summaries would then easily available and downloadable, for the Annual Report, as well as reuse by others who report this information independently, and for external researchers use.

Amendments to Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 and Amendment 2  At the end of section 10, Amendment 3 Subsection 12(2)

The OpenAustralia Foundation supports qualified assessment of FOI reviews by a sufficiently resourced, fully Independent FOI Commissioner who has appropriate qualifications and who has demonstrated support of FOI as a vehicle for giving people the right to access information.

To the extent that this amendment removes a loophole under which an unqualified Privacy or Information commissioner could exercise the FOI functions, we support this amendment.

Amendment 4  At the end of section 14 Separate commissioners to be appointed

We support the intention that each Commissioner’s appointment be a separate person, so that one person is not doing the work of three people.

The OpenAustralia Foundation broadly support amendment that the office not be left open for more than 3 months is useful in the short term. It’s a defensive maneuver to ensure that the role be not effectively ceased by leaving it open.

However, we have a question about this. Is it possible to compel the executive to make an appointment? Or give the power to the Senate or the House to appoint someone if the position remains vacant for a period of time?

While this comment is beyond the scope of consideration by the committee, the OpenAustralia Foundation would like to suggest a more sustainable way to ensure the role be usefully maintained. Introduce a more robustly Independent process, where the appointment of Information Commissioners is not dependent on the support of the executive that they are there, ultimately, to hold to account.

It’s time for a full review of Freedom of Information

While OpenAustralia Foundation is recommending the committee support this amendments bill, we do so as it is the only thing we are aware of before Parliament that seeks to improve access to information.

We note the recommendations of Dr. Alan Hawke in the 2012-2013 review and the suite of recommendations that yet lie unexplored and untapped in the provision of better FOI service for everyone.

In Australia’s first Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, the Government committed to a range of reforms including Information management and access laws for the 21st century. This too remains stalled or incomplete.

Freedom of Information is essential to a secure democracy

The Government holds information gathered on behalf of the Australian people. The Government is required to make documents in the public interest freely available to the public. Governments also need to give open access to people wanting specific information.

Australia was an early adopter of securing the rights of everyone to access information, but the rest of the world is moving quickly and we’re now falling behind.

Only half a dozen countries secured the rights of everyone to access information when Australia enacted the Freedom of Information Act 1982. As of September 2013, at least 95 countries around the world now have Freedom of Information laws. These are also known as Access to Information and Right to Information laws. [1]  A number of countries have enacted FOI legislation since this report, taking the number to well over 100. This access is a key component of transparency, accountability and civic participation. It’s a way for everyone to scrutinize Government and public sector information, to become better informed, and to take full part in our democratic system. FOI is increasingly strengthened as part of Open Government initiatives, in which Governments are expected to be open and promote openness.

The last time we wrote to support retaining the Office of the Information Commissioner (OAIC), Australia ranked 47th in the world, and today that ranking has further slipped to 65th in the global index of right to information standards. [2]

We can do much, much better.

Freedom Of Information (FOI) is a crucial part of the checks and balances in any democracy, and key part of transparency and accountability of Government.

The process of making a freedom of information request is not very straight forward. OAF created the site with the aim of demystifying and simplifying this process and helping more Australians make FOI requests.

The site not only shows all requests but the paper trail of correspondence in pursuit of the request from those requesting documents and those holding them. Read more below at About

The site provides an unparalleled public view of the workings of the Australian Federal FOI system.

RightToKnow collects evidence

OAF facilitated 1627 requests in 2017, and 1787 so far in 2018 FOI requests and their related correspondence made to local, state and Australian Federal authorities through

OpenAustralia Foundation sees how many requests were unsuccessful (refused or did not turn up any documents), and just how many remain unresolved. These await reply, await classification, are overdue, or long overdue for a response. RightToKnow doesn’t provide a way to follow  them through to Information Commissioner review currently.

The OAF has previously provided information relating to unsuccessful requests to earlier inquiries. We are currently compiling the latest statistics and will publish them here as soon as they are available.

Australia needs a fully functional and fully independent OAIC

For accountability, everyone need access to a free merit review system administered by an effective independent office.  We already have that office, in the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). Underfunding the OAIC, then complaining that IC reviews take too long and using public money to hand appeals over to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), a system that is inherently more expensive to administer each decision, and which requires legal representation on both sides, looks like a heavy handed, inefficient move at increased cost to the Australian public.

Delay release by the Agency or Minister to the public, by default

Amendment 8  Subsection 11C(6) where the  agency or Minister delay public release of information released to the applicant.

In response to amendment 8, the OpenAustralia Foundation understands that FOI is applicant blind. 10 days is a fairly lengthy delay by default, however delaying release by default can also be a safer option. We’ve seen examples on RightToKnow just in the last couple of months where private information was erroneously published; therefore it makes more sense to default to a delayed release to give both sides a chance to review what’s about to be released.

We note that this would be possible to implement across the board in RightToKnow, and is a provision we have been actively considering.

We note the importance that this provision only binds the agency or Minister; it doesn’t prevent the applicant from making the information they received public immediately.

*Time limit for publication
(6) The agency or Minister must comply with this section within 10 working days after the day the person is given access to the document.”

Further to this provision, there is an opportunity to clarify that documents should be published at this time. Currently what’s required to be published in disclosure logs is a way to access the documents, and not necessarily the documents themselves. This is interpreted by some to not publish the documents online.

Keep Freedom Of Information Free for Everyone

Amendments 9  Subsection 29(1)(d) and 10  After subsection 29(5) suggests granting an exemption of fees if the application processing costs are under $1,000.

The OpenAustralia Foundation opposes amendments giving different rights of access to Members of the House of Representatives and Senators. We believe that the existing 5(b) public interest test would be sufficient here – that is, if the cost is low and a Senator or Member is requesting the information, we believe that it’s likely to be in the public interest that charges are waived..

We believe that making exemptions for politicians makes it more difficult for politicians to notice problems with the legislation that affect everybody else using it.

If this amendment has been suggested because of an understanding that Parliament is currently paying too much in order to have FOI applications approved, we believe this indicates that costs are too high for everybody and would prefer to see them dropped overall rather than an exemption being made for Senators and Members.

Fund the OAIC, and let it serve the Australian Community. Keep Appeals Timely and Free, for Everyone

Amendment 12:  At the end of Division 6 of Part VI, 55JA   Procedure in IC review—notice requirement if lengthy review and 55JB   Procedure in IC review—transfer to Tribunal

To give ordinary users of FOI access recourse when their requests are denied, refused or avoided, then FOI law gives the a right of appeal to an independent office. An external review system which is accessible, free, and appropriately resourced to enable independent and timely assessment of whether the everyone’s rights of access were upheld is essential.

The OpenAustralia Foundation does not support amendment 12 as it stands, it’s a long time to wait for a review. The applicant has probably gone through a 30 day initial, 30 day internal review, maybe some consultation, even where the authority is straightforward in their dealings. It’s possible for the request to be outstanding for 60+ days when the matter gets to the Information Commissioner (IC)  – The IC should be sufficiently funded to be able to make decisions in the normal course of events within 30 days, and allow them to be referred to the AAT.

We do however, fully support waiving the costs associated with referral to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Having been significantly hampered in its operations since the Government attempted to abolish the OAIC, agencies continue to routine refusing requests knowing this will go on unchecked for significant periods of time, and as a result, far fewer cases have be investigated. If fewer people trust the FOI system, fewer requests will be made. Determinations will lead straight to a more costly review process needing expensive legal assistance. That would be a terrible outcome for FOI and for Australia’s democratic health.

There are those who do wish to go straight to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), including media reporters following a time critical story. While this bill provides options to allow people to refer a matter to the AAT without waiting a minimum of 6 months, we are concerned that this provides an incentive to not increase the funding of the OAIC to provide an acceptable service to the Australian community, but rather divert funds to a body that necessarily formalises the appeals process.

Framing FOI as a legal problem, not a civic right is plain wrong. FOI decision makers and officers use the language of legal exemptions in interpreting the Act, rather than emphasise the need for openness and of ‘maximum disclosure’ made more explicit in 2010 reforms to the FOI Act.[4] Having learned all the standard tricks of the refusal trade, agencies have become very adept at refusing FOI requests as a matter of course.

Everyone Has a Right To Information

Switching from one argument to refuse a request to another can be a lack of clarity in the initial assessment, a defensive move, a delay tactic, or a blindness to everyone’s rights to know.

As we have noted before, we’ve had an opportunity running RightToKnow, to see how agencies behave. Publicly available FOI requests and their correspondence have given us all an opportunity to see first hand how agencies handle requests.

The evidence we present shows that there are big differences across agencies’ handling of FOI requests. Some agencies handle requests professionally and courteously. Thank you to those agencies.

Some agencies show a systemic culture of secrecy and a disrespect for FOI requests at work; they’re the ones gaming the system.

A systemic culture of secrecy

We support amendment 11.

Australia has unbalanced laws about releasing information. The Government already appears acutely aware of the risks associated with releasing information but much less aware of the risks of not releasing enough information. We have a system which severely punishes those public servants who release information which in it’s view ought not be public, and consciously or not, systematically encourages and protects those who avoid publishing information they could easily share. Thus it becomes safer for every public servant to hold documents close, and release as little as possible by default. This all helps to create the culture of secrecy.

We’re not surprised when we see agencies interpret FOI law to the most minute detail with the purpose of   releasing information to the public by default. They argue against the release of even mundane documents where the material is uncontentious or even publicly available in another form already. At the same time, obstructive agencies also display what might be wilful misinterpretation or incompetence in their failure or inability to give the documents requested.

Such responses show that there is a culture of working harder to refuse rather than share their documents, Whether due to failing inefficient old information storage and retrieval systems, fear or lack of leadership, they’re acting in flat contradiction to their responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act 1982(FOI Act).

Some are knowingly gaming the system, and we have observed that switching reasons for refusal can fall into that pattern of delaying tactics. For this reason, we support amendment 11.

Amendment 11  Procedure in IC review—consistent application of exemptions by decision-maker  that includes relying on any exemptions in Divisions 2 and 3 of Part IV that were not relied upon in making the IC reviewable decision.


Right To Know aims to make it easier for everyone to make Freedom of Information requests in a few different ways.

  • Helping you make your successful request is the main focus of the site
  • Bringing all the authorities together saves time, you don’t have to trawl the web for the right authority first
  • To make the process easier to understand, it uses plain english
  • To get a feeling for the scope, wording of successful requests, it offers you dynamic search for related requests so you can see how others have done it
  • Clearly communicates your rights of access
  • Guidance appears as and when you need it to keep the request flowing through Right to Know and the Public Authority to whom your request is being made

RightToKnow does not provide help for individuals accessing private or personal information held by government.

About OpenAustralia Foundation

The OpenAustralia Foundation encourages and enables people to participate directly in the political process on a local, community and national level. We believe that we can help to reinvigorate Australia’s civic culture by using powerful and exciting new technologies to inform and empower people, to address the growing disconnect between the Government and the people who elect it.

We currently do this through our five online projects,, and previously Additionally we provide infrastructure with These services aim at finding better ways of making government, the public sector and political information freely and easily available and usable by all Australians. We aim to inform people so they can make a positive difference.

The OpenAustralia Foundation is a strictly non-partisan organisation. We are not affiliated with any political party. We are simply passionate about making our democracy work.

Notes and References

*Not included here or at are requests which were hidden from the website because they contained inappropriately personal requests for information (not what the site is for). This is made clear on the site’s help page.

[1] Right to Information Index:


Posted in Announcement, | 1 Response

Electronic voting is coming to the House of Representatives!

Two years after the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure published a report supporting introducing electronic voting in the House of Representatives, Coalition MP Christopher Pyne has announced that the Government will be doing just that by 2019!

While this is very good news and a step in the right direction, there is no indication that the Government plans to change its voting practices. Instead, they’ll simply replace how the House currently conducts formal votes – known as divisions – with a new electronic voting mechanism.

How are divisions currently done?

There are two kinds of votes: voting ‘on the voices’ and divisions.

Votes that take place ‘on the voices’ are considered less important and the House doesn’t record how our Members of Parliament (MPs) vote in them. Instead, the vote is won by shouting ‘AYE!’ or ‘NO!’ more loudly than the other side.

Divisions, on the other hand, are recorded. During a division, our MPs stand up and walk to one side of the chamber or the other depending on whether they wish to vote ‘Aye’ or ‘No’. Their names are then recorded and the side with the most names wins the vote.

How will electronic voting change things?

As things currently stand, electronic voting won’t change very much. Instead of standing up and walking around in order to vote in a division, our MPs will instead input their vote electronically.

This will speed things up – “freeing up more time for important parliamentary business”, according to MP Pyne – but won’t otherwise change parliamentary procedure. Voting ‘on the voices’ will continue to take place and we will still not have any data on how our MPs are voting at those times.

Why is this disappointing?

Most votes in Parliament take place ‘on the voices’. This means that we have no data on how our individual representatives are voting most of the time a serious problem in terms of keeping our representatives accountable.

As we submitted to the inquiry back in 2016, we believe that, thanks to the time saved by electronic voting, it would allow the House to “produce a fuller voting records” by ensuring that all – or, at least, most – votes are officially recorded:

This record will be used by Australians to hold their MPs accountable, and will become an important historical record of MPs’ contribution to our democracy. Without this level of accountability, our democracy remains open to abuse by politicians who say one thing to their electorate but vote quite differently within Parliament.

Where to from here?

Introducing electronic voting into the House is an excellent first step towards true accountability. Although the Standing Committee on Procedure disagreed with our proposal back in 2016, it is possible that once electronic voting is up and running well, they will be more inclined to extend its use to all forms of voting in the House.

What about the Senate?

There are currently no plans to introduce electronic voting into the Senate. But the good news is that there are far more divisions taking place in the Senate thanks to our noisy independent and small party senators, who regularly demand that a formal vote takes place rather than simply resolving the matter ‘on the voices’. This means our senators’ voting records already tend to give a more accurate picture of how they are voting.



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My Outreachy Internship with Open Australia Foundation

Cross-posted from Hisayo Horie’s blog, our wonderful Outreachy intern for the last 3 months.

Officially I finished my internship with Open Australia Foundation, and I already miss working with OAF so much. I learned so much about programing and development, as well as community centred technology, challenges, and most importantly where I stand and where I want to go.

The project I worked on (and will most definitely keep working as a contributor) is councillor data contribution project (we did not find a cooler name for the project in the period of my internship, but I believe it can still happen). The project is about creating a user-friendly system and interface to enable volunteer contributions to keep an Australian local councillor database so that other apps can be fed by the database.

Screenshot showing an example of adding councillors to PlanningAlerts

I really like this project because it is about expanding and diversifying the participant base of civic tech. One of the challenges in civic tech is the critical lack of community participation and consultation in the process. It is interesting in some way (not in a good way) when a group of social justice minded developers create apps to solve social issues without consulting the area experts or people who are the most affected by the issue, nor attempting to create a process that lets those people actively participate to be a part of the solution. Deconstructing this divide between tech people and non-tech people is a key to create community-centered technology. And I believe the best way for deconstruction is the construction of something to actually address the challenge better. In the case of our project, to create a system that makes the contribution possible without technical knowledge.

Another thing that is important about this project is the process. If we create something to challenge the issue of exclusion, our development process needs to reflect the value and the goal. Before start coding, we spent about 2 weeks to figure out our design principles and the goal. Although I felt an itch to rush the process to get on coding, I am glad we spent the time to build the solid foundation of the project.

It is truly great for me to work on the project that addresses an issue I personally care for, and even more so because the team I worked with was just unbelievably amazing. Luke and Henare are both very patient, willing to teach, and VERY particular in how we write code. And that‘s what I want from mentors. They definitely exceeded the expectation. I learned a lot not only about rails (the framework we use for the app), but also about communication and version control using git, and reason why it is so important.

I missed the official application deadline because I spent too much time questioning if I should apply or not. I thought I wouldn’t get it anyways because I am not experienced enough. It was a fortune that OAF had an extended deadline, because they joined later. I saw they are using Ruby on Rails, and decided to give it a shot. I am so happy I did as I ended up working with great people for a great project, and I learned tons.

At that time, I was on the fence about giving up a career in programming because no matter what I try, the door doesn’t seem to open for me. And probably I was not settled with the decision myself. The leap I made from community work, art-based education and storytelling was very big, and in previous work I mostly worked with black, indigenous, and people of color who do not shy away from being political because we have to to survive. I was struggling to see myself in the corporate world of tech.

And to be very honest, it is not easy for people like us out there. Even within the carefully worded eligible candidates of Outreachy, (“You identify as a woman (cis or trans), trans man, or genderqueer person (including genderfluid or genderfree)”), we need to acknowledge there are big gaps among these group in terms of access, level of surveillance, and even the resources (i.e. other privileges) to capitalize on these oppressed identity markers (and this happens all the time in the time of diversity industrial complex). There are not that many opportunities out there for us, and these internships are a few of them. This is the first time I felt seen in my experience of tech industry.

Through this internship, I came to realize that technology doesn’t and shouldn’t only belong in the corporate industry, because technology also is a culture. We need to build the culture of technology that is truly inclusive and welcoming, and to work to build technology for social good. I had long forgotten why I started to learn code, and through this internship I remembered. I started to learn code because I wanted to advance my art-based education practice. I wanted to write code to contribute in creating technologies in hands of people who are at the margin. Although there is a lot that needs to be done and change, I also started to see the ways to contribute to nurture the culture of social justice from inside of the industry, and started to meet people who are working for it too.

This internship was life changing. The biggest thank you for Luke Bacon, Henare Degan and Outreachy for making this possible. I will be around to make more contributions in OAF projects!

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People Have Problems Accessing Information

‘Australia will ensure our information access laws, policies and practices are modern and appropriate for the digital information age.’ That’s the ambitious task that Attorney General’s Department took on with Open Government commitment 3.1 Information management and access laws for the 21st century, in Australia’s first Open Government National Action Plan.

Attorney General’s Department saw a chance to use a different approach to understanding this problem, and they started by asking people who use Freedom of Information and Archives about their experiences.

Attorney General’s Department staff held consultations with people inside Government, Civil Society Organisation members and people who access information through FOI and archives. Peter Timmins (AOGPN) and me (Kat Szuminska – AOGPN/OpenAustralia Foundation) met with them to reflect on experiences that people have with the current FOI and archives systems. By June 30 this year, all together, AGD had consulted with 32 government agencies, 17 civil society members and nine end users.

To bring real world experiences to the table I asked our valued administrators at Right To Know to share what they’ve seen when people make public freedom of information requests in Australia. 

Here’s what they shared:


You must request documents, not information, with your Freedom of Information request

Citizens don’t think in terms of documents, bureaucracies, do. People don’t know what types of documents will have the information they want because they don’t work inside the agency they’re making a request to. They mostly don’t want the whole document—they just want some information. This rule confuse people and makes FOI more legalistic, bureaucratic, and resource intensive for agencies and requesters than need be.

FOI Officers are able to use this rule as a way to push back on requests they would otherwise fulfil if they had said they wanted ‘documents that include’ the information they want.

FOI Officers can actually just fulfil the information request as an administrative/information request, and we see the system working at it’s best when this occurs.

Here’s an example of an FOI officer refusing the request for clear reasons, but then providing the basic information the requester wanted anyway:



Here’s another example of a local council providing lots of information to help a requester:



More on fees. Big fees, little fees etc.

A big issue with fees is where massive, spurious fees are imposed for something that shouldn’t take long. Also fees of any kind being imposed to access docs with a clear public interest is bad

Imposing fees used to slow down requests and impose more process on people.

For instance, estimating a large fee and waiting for the applicant to ask that it be lowered stops the clock on the 30 day timelimit


  1. “it took 33 days from when I made a request to waive charges for a decision to be made.”


Requests for small amounts, e.g. $15, seem counter intuitive. The cost of administering the small payments if often is more than the amount charged for both agencies and requesters. When fees like this seem arbitrary they kill trust in the process and the good will of FOI officers.

At the state jurisdictions the imposition of fees and forms is the major reason requests are cut short.

On the other hand, many FOI Officers make their own public interest assessment and waive fees. Once again, this is the system working at it’s best. People should be supported in making public interest information public, not charged. Where charges are imposed on public interest requests, income and wealth shape people’s ability to help our government agencies increase their transparency.

Here’s a great example of an officer waiving fees:

Often the person making the request is more of an expert in the topic than the FOI officer. Accordingly they often know more efficient methods to extract the information they need from the standard systems used by the agency. A more collaborative approach would promote these knowledge exchanges to extract information from government systems more efficiently. In situations where the officer ignores advice from the requester, imposed fees often seem absurd or obstructive.


Like the ‘documents, not information’ rule, FOI request forms seems to purely benefit agencies and deter people from making requests.

We see lots of requests ending when forms and fees are imposed.

Agencies impose forms when there’s no clear reason to, often going against their Act and Information Commissioner recommendations.

These forms are mostly poorly designed and request information not required by the Act for a request to be processed. This creates a bad experience and deters requesters.

Like small fees, requiring people to fill out forms with information they’ve just emailed the agency seems arbitrary and destories good will between the requester and the FOI officer.

Here’s some examples:

NSW Police requiring forms where the GIPA Act says you don’t need them:

NT Department of Justice requiring forms against their Act and advice from their Information Commissioner:

Legalistic culture that intimidates people out of requesting

Inconsistent/nonexistent disclosure log practice

Initially under 2010 reforms many agencies were placing full copies documents on their disclosure log but by 2013 this was ceased by several agencies including a decision of the Executive Board of the Attorney General’s Department to “reduce resources spent on preparing documents for publication”. Other agencies have interpreted the OAIC guidance on disclosure logs which includes a template to be followed in a way that reduces the usability for example the ACCC merely publishes each release labeled with a internal code that doesn’t suggest what the FOI request regards.

At the same time in 2014 the Department of Immigration and Border Protection began increasing the number of documents placed online such that the vast majority are now available.


Cumbersome and expensive arbitrary payment methods

No option to pay by Credit Card or Electronic Funds Transfer from many large agencies despite fact that charges could be placed in the Consolidated Revenue Fund centrally



OAIC doesn’t come into bat for people

Shouldn’t they be making sure agencies that clearly don’t comply with the spirit and letter of the Act are made to comply? e.g. Department of Human Services, Australian Tax Office, Department of Immigration and Border Protection

Read more about experiences with RightToKnow, and some of the work that the OpenAustralia Foundation does to help people get more, and expect more, from FOI. 

What next?

The Government recently published their Mid-term self assessment on OGP including this update:

..the Attorney-General’s Department consulted with government and non-government stakeholders, they  held a workshop in conjunction with the Department of Human Services Design Hub. The aim of the workshop was for AGD to present its findings of the initial consultation (the discovery phase) and for government, non-government and civil society stakeholders to come together to develop and co-design reform options to make access to, and management of, government information easier in the 21st century.

I participated in this workshop, and was asked not to share content from this event. If not before, I’d expect to see an update that includes a round up at the next meeting of the Open Government Forum in October.

Updates about this reform and find out more about how Australia’s Open Government National Action Plan is going at PM&C’s OGP Dashboard


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Hung parliament? There is a silver lining…

The latest election in the United Kingdom has resulted in a hung parliament – something we’re familiar with here in Australia. Our 2010 federal election ended in a hung parliament, with six crossbenchers holding the balance of power in an uneasy alliance with the Australian Labor Party. And our last election was so close that the result wasn’t known for over a week, with the Coalition only just managing to win the 76 seats necessary to control the House of Representatives in their own right without crossbencher support – which I’m sure the Coalition Government is thankful for since, if there’s one thing we learnt from the the former Labor Government’s experience, it’s that crossbencher-agreements attract their fair share of controversy. Just look at the current UK election coverage!

But despite the fuss and tensions caused by a close result, there is an unintended benefit: attendance! The closer the numbers are between parties, the more likely our Members of Parliament (MPs) will show up to make sure they keep ahead of their opposition.

This is certainly the case in Australia, where the Coalition leads by a majority of one MP in the House. So far in 2017, only two divisions (or formal votes) have involved less than 91% of MPs. This can be compared to 2014, the year after the Coalition won a firm majority in the House, when most divisions were voted on with less than that number of MPs.

So despite the media storm caused by a close result, at least we can count on higher attendance figures as a nice silver lining.

What’s so good about attendance?

In our democracy, we vote for politicians to represent us – both at an electorate level with our MPs in the House of Representatives and at a state level with our Senators in the Senate. Some MPs and Senators have other jobs – acting as ministers or leaders in some capacity – but ultimately we vote for them to represent us in whichever house of Parliament they belong to. And the main way they do this is by voting on our behalf – a power each one of them has, from the backbencher who never makes it onto the news to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Each has one vote, though the vote is not actually theirs – it’s yours. Your electorate’s in the House. Your state or territory’s in the Senate.

But absent politicians don’t vote. So the less often your MP or Senator is in Parliament, the less often your electorate or state/territory is being represented in Parliament. There is an informal ‘pairing’ system that means, for example, if a member of the Government is absent then a member of the Opposition can be paired with them, which means they also don’t vote and so neither side benefits from the absence. However, since the system is informal, either side can refuse to participate in it.

Wait a minute… what about the Senate?

Although our friends in the UK don’t vote for their upper house – we certainly do! So what happens to attendance figures in the Senate when there’s a close result?

Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate’s attendance figures have remained more or less steady over the years since the start of They Vote For You’s data in 2006, with figures consistently less than those of the House of Representatives. For example, so far in 2017 there have only been three votes with attendance levels above 90%.

We don’t know why your average Senator misses more votes than the average MP. If you ask your Senators, let us know what they say!

Maybe the lower attendance figures are because Government is formed in the House of Representatives and so the Senate can be seen as more of a ‘House of Review’ (putting it nicely) or a ‘rubber stamp’ (putting it less nicely).

Or maybe it’s because senators don’t independently represent their states and so they feel less significant. While only one MP is elected to represent a particular electorate, twelve senators are elected to represent each state and two to represent each territory. And these senators usually belong to parties, which means that they vote with their fellow party members regardless of state and territory lines. As Joff Lelliott wrote for The Drum, “It is laughable to imagine votes in the Senate breaking along state rather than party lines these days” (you could verify whether this is in fact true using the They Vote For You data).

Considering that the Senate was created as a way to represent our state or territory’s interests at a federal level, perhaps it’s time to look again at why we have a Senate and what purpose we want it to play. But that’s a question for another day, and another blog post.

For now, you can go to They Vote For You and type in your postcode to find out your MP’s attendance figures. Then look through our list of senators (sorted by state/territory) and compare their attendance figures. If you’re not satisfied with what you find, perhaps it’s time to contact your representatives and ask them why they aren’t using the vote you elected them to use on your behalf.


Posted in They Vote For You | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our plan for PlanningAlerts

USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) blueprints, from a 1973 book

USS Enterprise – hopefully our plans are simpler. Image used with thanks under Creative Commons

Today we’re excited to welcome Hisayo Horie to our team. Over the next 3 months they will be working with us to make updating councillor data for Ask Your Local Councillors a breeze. This will breath new life into this important part of PlanningAlerts and will give thousands and thousands more people the opportunity to discuss what’s being built and knocked down in their community with their elected officials. Hisayo will be blogging throughout the project and we’ll be sharing some of those updates here soon.

Recently we’ve also been thinking about other projects we should be focussing on. Our very successful maintenance quarter reminded us that we have a lot of unfinished projects, big and small. This is work that we’ve already decided to do, we just need to get on and do it.

Unusually, an important consideration for us at the moment is revenue-generating work. This is important because we’ve known since the end of the last financial year that we’ll need to find a replacement for a major donation that we’ve been told not to expect this year. We’re also aiming to generate enough additional new revenue for our long-standing goal of hiring a new person.

The two projects that fit these criteria are helpfully also related to PlanningAlerts. We started PlanningAlerts Backers last year as a way for passionate PlanningAlerts supporters to financially back the project. We’ve long been planning some changes to PlanningAlerts commercial API access.

There is just over a month until the new financial year. Around that time we’re planning to review this approach and our plan for the next quarter of 2017. We’ve already had some early success with PlanningAlerts Backers and we’re hoping to get a lot further in the next few weeks with this and our other two PlanningAlerts projects.

Posted in Planning, | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Responses

A great win for Right to Know, FOI and transparency

Ben Fairless is a volunteer administrator of our Freedom of Information (FOI) request site, Right To Know. When the ATO started to refuse valid FOI requests from people on Right To Know he made a personal complaint to the OAIC about his refused request. He has some good news to share!

You may have been aware from previous blog posts that the ATO has been refusing to process valid Freedom of Information Requests requests made via Right to Know since August last year.

In response to their failure to respond to my FOI requests, I made a complaint to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) in my capacity as an FOI applicant. Both I and the OpenAustralia Foundation believe that all Commonwealth authorities have no right to refuse to process valid requests just because they come from Right to Know.

I’m pleased to pleased that I received a letter in response to my complaint from the Information Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim yesterday. Mr. Pilgrim’s letter supports both my understanding and the Foundation’s position; It is lawful to use Right to Know to make FOI requests. He further recommended that the ATO begin processing stalled requests. You can read the entire letter on

Some key points of the Commissioner’s decision are:

“Part 3.48 of the Guidelines issued by the Australian Information Commissioner under s 93A of the FOI Act (the FOI Guidelines), to which regard must be had in performing a function or exercising a power under the FOI Act, provide that a request can be posted on a public website and forwarded to a specified electronic address of the agency or the Minister. The FOI Guidelines reference the RTK website in the footnote, as an example of such a website.” [emphasis mine]

In addition, the Commissioner had something to say about the way the ATO requested Right to Know remove an Internal Review:

The ATO did not ask the RTK website administrators to remove the name of the affected ATO staff, instead, it asked the RTK website administrators to remove a request for internal review of the ATO’s FOI decision.

He also went on to say that:

The powers of the Information Commissioner do not extend to the administration of the RTK website.

The Commissioner then issued a formal recommendation:

Under s 88 of the FOI Act, I recommend that the ATO process valid FOI requests made through the RTK website.

I believe this recommendation is appropriate to complete this investigation.

As citizens, we are really lucky to have an authority like the OAIC who are responsible for looking after our Right to Know. This application and process cost me nothing but time, and was simple and straightforward. The OAIC played a vital role in resolving this problem. Without the OAIC I would need to appeal to a more formal body, costing time, money (several hundred dollars to just appeal) and legal fees that would run into the thousands.

I feel that the only thing that could have been improved in this process was the time it took for the OAIC to review the complaint, however I hope that could be addressed with more funding for this important resource.

As volunteers at Right To Know we all work hard to ensure that it is a safe environment, where people can work productively with government on furthering the government’s own goals of being open and transparent, and will continue to do so with the support of this decision. We look forward to seeing the ATO uphold their responsibilities and processing people’s requests via the Right to Know website.

Posted in Announcement, | Tagged | 2 Responses

Our first ever Outreachy Internship

Today we’re excited to announce that Hisayo Horie will be working with us for the next 3 months in our Outreachy Internship position.

Before we introduce Hisayo, and the project we’ll be working on together, let us tell you a little about how the Outreachy application process has gone since our announcement blog post just six weeks ago.

This is the first time we’ve been part of this program, or any internship program, and we were extremely impressed by the applicants’ skills, determination, creativity, and spirit of collaboration. We’re grateful for their patience with us during the application process and through the wait for this announcement.

42 people contacted us about the program. 20 submitted applications and 8 completed the application process by getting their contributions merged to our projects through GitHub.

A special thanks to Akriti Verma, Anishka Gupta, Ekaterina Semenova, Esther Monchari, Hisayo Horie, Keerti Guatam, Shreya Sonawane, and Tanuja Sawant. Just getting setup to work on our projects can be hard and you all contributed code that’s now running in our projects and improving the experience for thousands of people who use them each day. You should be extremely proud. Thank you!

We were spoiled for choice by these applicants and wish we could offer more than one position for this round of Outreachy. The applications were thoughtful and presented a great range of skills and experience. A number of our applicants are leading projects to share their skills and fight marginalisation in their local areas. Everyone took feedback constructively through the process and we saw rapid improvements in applicants’ code quality, communication, and understanding of our process.

We hope that the challenging application process was a valuable learning experience for everyone. We’re here to continue giving feedback and merging contributions. To anyone reading, if you’ve been wanting to get involved in projects like ours please check out our good for first contribution issues and you are welcome to contact us directly. These contributions count towards future Outreachy rounds and are a great way to build experience in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Subscribe to this blog for updates about our future Outreachy participation.

Huge thanks to the Outreachy co-ordinators for all their support and advice throughout the application process.

This is the first time Outreachy has included an Australian based organisation and that connection is thanks to where we heard about the program from Karen Sandler. Another huge thanks to everyone who generously donated to Outreachy at and to Linux Australia for directing a portion of those funds to our Outreachy position.

We’ll be following up soon with a post about our experience of the Outreachy application process. We’re talking FOSS here so naturally we want to be open and share what worked well and what didn’t.

Introducing Hisayo

Throughout the whole application process we had a great experience getting to know Hisayo, a web developer based in Toronto with a background in environmental studies. Hisayo’s twitter profile says “anything involves storytelling, social justice and technology are my jam”—sounds good to us!

Hisayo selected “Make an easy way for volunteers to contribute information about elected local councillors so we can help people write to them etc.” as their project to work on over the three month program. Our motivation with this project is to support the feature of PlanningAlerts that helps people to write to their local councillors about planning applications. There’s over 5000 local councillors in Australia so it’s not feasible for us to keep the data up-to-date without some serious help from volunteers. Our existing contribution process is way too difficult. We need to make it easy for interested people in an area (PlanningAlerts users for example) to keep their local councillor list up-to-date.

We’ll be working on the project together though the Outreachy Internship period from May 30 to August 30. As always we’ll be looking to deploy something useful as quickly as possible and then iterate from there—expect to see lots of updates if you’re following along.

Like all our top applicants Hisayo’s code contributions made solid improvements for the people using our projects. Hisayo went even further by deeply exploring the problem that their chosen project aims to fix. They asked lots of questions and updated the local councillor information for Victoria’s Yarra Ranges Shire Council.

On top of this, Hisayo has a background in activism against the exclusion of citizens from democratic processes, a problem PlanningAlerts aims to respond to. Hisayo’s application eloquently articulated how specific groups of people are marginalised from local planning processes in Toronto. These same issues exist in Australia.

Hisayo even pushed the project further by proposing we “diversify the data from the beginning, not as an afterthought”:

Diversifying data, for me, means inviting in people who are historically marginalized and excluded from conversations around technology and information, and intentionally building data structures that reflect those voices and lived experiences.

Hisayo is really thinking about how the design of technology impacts society. We’re excited to learn from Hisayo and see these ideas implemented in this project. The FOSS world will greatly benefit from having more people like Hisayo leading the way. It’s our pleasure to get to play a part in that.

Hisayo will be sharing their ideas and experiences through fortnightly blog posts as part of the Outreachy program. Subscribe to stay in the loop.

Posted in Announcement, Outreachy, | Tagged , , | 1 Response

They Vote For You: “dishonest”?

A common query we get over email or social media is how we choose what bills appear on They Vote For You and why we don’t just include every bill that passes through Parliament. Occasionally, these queries are accompanied by accusations of dishonesty, inaccuracy, bias and more.

As much as I’d love to dismiss these accusations outright, the fact is that there is a problem with the voting data that’s available in Australia – a problem that we’ve discussed on this blog before (including why a policy you care about may not be on the site).

The problem in a nutshell is that They Vote For You uses parliamentary voting data, but right now our Parliament only records data for formal votes (known as divisions). This is despite the fact that the majority of votes in Parliament are actually made ‘on the voices’, which is when our Members of Parliament (MPs) and Senators shout ‘AYE!’ or ‘NO!’ and whichever side shouts the loudest wins.

In other words, right now we have no record of how our representatives are voting most of the time, and so have no way to hold them properly accountable for their actions.

Whole bills can and do pass through Parliament without any voting data being recorded, which means they won’t show up on They Vote For You at all.

This is a serious problem that needs to be solved.

One possible solution would be for Parliament to introduce electronic voting so that it can maintain a full voting record without slowing up procedures too much. We even wrote to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure about this last year when they were holding an inquiry into electronic voting. But their response wasn’t promising.

If you agree that we should have access to a full voting record – rather than just part of the story – you can write to your representatives yourself and ask them to support the introduction of electronic voting. Or maybe you have other ideas about how to hold them properly accountable. If so, we’d love to hear from you.

How do you think we can make our representatives more accountable for how they vote in Parliament?


And Remember! They Vote For You can be edited by anyone – including you! Simply sign up and start editing.


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CSO Review of Australia’s First OGP National Action Plan

The Open Government Partnership was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. The primary mechanism of the OGP for supporting domestic reformers to secure open government reforms is the development and implementation of National Action Plans by member countries. The Civil Society Organisation Review outlined here was designed to support the rigorous and comprehensive scrutiny of an action plan by civil society. More about the CSO Review at

On behalf of the Australian Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network, I asked to lead an Independent Civil Society Review of Australia’s first Open Government National Action Plan. will publish full results in due course, where scoring each question is weighted to ensure that each is given the worth it deserves. Today I’ll just run through an overview of the process, & share some first impressions.


That Civil Society Review is now underway. Its is a parallel, independent assessment of the ambition and openness of the NAP. It is not part of the official Independent Reporting Mechanism. The review may be taken into consideration by the IRM researcher.  A number of other countries have chosen to participate in this parallel process, to facilitate learning and improvements during and OGP cycle. For Australia, this review’s timing happened to be just we launch into implementation of the NAP, a perfect time to build in commitment details that will keep the NAP on course to deliver tangible measurable benefits to citizens.


The review has three steps, the first of which has just been completed:

Step 1. A lead civil society organisation (lead CSO) conducts a preliminary review. In Australia’s case that’s the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network. We asked those who’ve participated to share their experiences via a survey. We report on first impressions from 7 civil society respondents below.


This preliminary review has three sets of questions (about 70 questions all up)

  • Assessing the process of developing the National Action Plan
  • Review the quality and ambition of the Action Plan (reviewing 5 randomly selected commitments)
  • Evaluating the National Action Plan as a Whole

Respondents answered multiple choice responses, and made comments on in each section.  Contributions came from 7 Civil Society members, including 4 CSO IWG members.  


Right then, here are those initial impressions.


Assessing the process of developing the National Action Plan

PM&C were commended for responding positively in August to CSO representation that a formal dialogue mechanism was necessary to progress the plan. The PM&C team showed a willingness to take on board feedback on improving OGP consultations. However, no explanation or reasons were given for rejection of public input.


Review the quality and ambition of the Action Plan

Five commitments selected at random. These were 1.3, 1.4, 3.1, 4.1 &  5.2, covering themes of extractives transparency, corporate corruption, high value datasets, election & political integrity, & participation in government decisions. Assessors reviewed commitments for quality and ambition. On average, scores sat between ‘somewhat’ and ‘moderately’ successful in each of the criteria assessed for development and ambition. Commitments on the whole were found not to be sufficiently challenging, and comments on commitment details suggest that the plan shows some repeat of existing work, commitments were vague, lack stretch goals and committed only to broad outcomes.


Evaluating the National Action Plan as a Whole

PM&C team were commended for taking on board feedback in the consultation process and their hard work on improving OGP consultations within constraints. Most commitments were welcomed, and are described as showing potential for ambition. Concern was expressed where key elements of OGP spirit are missing. For example beneficial ownership register that isn’t public. It was not clear whether reforms sufficiently align with the bigger Government policy agenda, for departments to drive change. Lack of public high level ministerial support for Open Government agenda was also noted. Establishing an MSF with good Terms of Reference for genuine collaboration was described as important.


Step 2. The preliminary review will be shared with other CSOs and the government point of contact for comments. 


Step 3. Based on the comments received, the review will revised by the lead CSO. The lead CSO has discretion to respond to comments as they see fit. The completed review is then published, along with the comments.  

Prepared by: Kat Szuminska on behalf of the Australian Open Government Civil Society Network

Posted in Open Government Partnership | Leave a comment
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