Cats, the bureaucracy and Freedom of Information – a tale of the conservative status quo

The internet is many things. Including cats. I’m not an animal lover by any means, but I chuckled at Stop Tony Meow, the web plug-in replacing pictures of Tony Abbott with kitties. A prank which rolled across Twitter with speed and depth, to be forgotten a week later.

Typically this is where internet memes end. Yet there is a deeper story here, providing insight into the failure of the government and bureaucracy to adapt and understand how the dispersal of information has been radically transformed by the internet. Importantly, events such as this also highlight the startling hypocrisy of a system preaching transparency yet one which, even now, is digging in, a bound-to-fail attempt to preserve the status quo of last century.

This week it was revealed one of the developers behind the plug-on – Dan Nolan – lodged a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see how the incident had played out in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Mr Nolan (in the SMH):

I don’t think there’s going to be any high-level stuff … but it would be really interesting to see how a government department reacts to these weird new kinds of technology and culture jamming stuff, which previously they wouldn’t have had to deal with.

Interesting is one word to describe how government departments react to new cultural and social phenomenon. Important is another. Like it or not, the bureaucracy shapes social norms, most obviously in how citizens interact with government. There are a litany of other norms where, at the margins, bureaucrats shift what is considered acceptable. This may relate to education or employment policy, or simply what constitutes public information.

The FOI request in question covers 137 pages of information and is being withheld until a fee of $720.30 is paid. This breaks down as “$82.80 for “search and retrieval”, $13.70 for photocopies and $623.80 for “decision-making time” – 36.19 hours at $20 per hour (with the first five hours free of charge as dictated by the FOI legislation)” (per SMH). 

Like many things bureaucratic, this is likely not the result of an individual working to obstruct but a system failing at a basic premise. Australia has one of the world’s leading bureaucracies. Institutions ranging from the Australian Electoral Commission, to the Productivity Commission and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (not to mention the main policy agencies) uphold critical parts of the compact between the public and the Australian government.

Yet on the question on public information and transparency, we fail with the best of them. 36.19 hours is an outrageous amount of time to spend on what should be a perfunctory request. This speaks to the multiple layers of approval relating to FOI and the antiquated processes established in a period long before email and auto-fill forms made citizen requests for government information as simple as a Facebook update. Government has failed to adapt, preferring a head in the sand approach until change grafts itself onto this issue at some future date.

This case is not critical to the future of freedom of information in Australia but it symbolises much that is wrong with the system we have. Important public information – from asylum seekers to school testing results to government grant application evaluations to health data – is hidden within the bureaucracy, the typical excuses being privacy, commercial confidence and national security concerns. Each of these can be valid for specific cases but are used too liberally to deny access to basic data.

This deters people from participation. When I was working in the 457 visa policy section at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, I never dealt with a single FOI request. In the 18 months I was there, I recall a total of two requests being made. This was in a period where temporary visas were constantly in the news and public interest was high, based on the amount of ministerial correspondence we received. The lack of FOI requests spoke to me not of disinterest but of the structural barriers inherent in successfully mounting an FOI request, primarily in the form of fees and time. Further, I know of huge datasets which sit idle on shared drives, restricted from the public because the default attitude is to hide, not to share. This data is not vital to the public, but it would drastically increase the accountability of government policy and allow researchers and those interested important insights into how government policy operates.

In 2008, there were positive signs emanating from government regarding how the internet has changed public information.

The previous government, led by then Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, commissioned a Government 2.0 taskforce. Headed by Nicholas Gruen, the taskforce recommended a declaration of open government by the government, a recommendation accepted. Other recommendations spoke to guidance, coordination and encouragement. The government also reviewed and reformed the FOI legislation. This led to a new statutory position – the Office of the Information Commissioner – and a slew of other changes, designed to simplify and expand the FOI process.

Yet this agenda has stalled in its infancy. Open government may be a step closer, but it is still a long way off, as demonstrated by Mr Nolan’s case and, more importantly, Scott Morrison’s inability to provide basic facts about Australia’s asylum policy. I don’t know what Nicholas Gruen’s thoughts about the current status quo are in relation to public information and open government, but his blog post here is instructive.

Unfortunately, no government will succeed in this space without a champion to lead and establish a strong example. The inertia within the bureaucracy on open government is stronger than good intentions. Some of the best public servants I know are extremely conservative on questions of public information, perceiving danger in rocking an otherwise stable boat.

With all the talk of free speech from the Abbott government on section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, one would think there would be natural allies in the Liberal party on questions of open government and public consideration of government held information. Sadly, any commitment is lacking, as established by the Prime Minister’s own department.

(Endnote: Dan Nolan is going to fork out the dollars to see the results. I’ll attempt to update this at a later date detailing the outcome. Also, I’d be more than happy to make a contribution, despite the fact he has said crowd funding could get messy.)

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