The Government Lowdown Runaround
By Bernard LaganSeptember 27, 2012
The Department of Immigration is in the spotlight all the time lately — but when you try to shine a light into its dark corners via Freedom of Information, you are entering a Kafkaesque tunnel. After many complaints, the Information Commissioner today released a report into the closed-mouth chaos of a critical government department.
The Department of Immigration is racked by a climate of fear about releasing information to the public and its officials have frequently flouted Freedom of Information (FOI) bylaws by stonewalling information requests for up to one-and-a-half years.
The department's lax attitude to dealing with requests for information has been uncovered during a six-month investigation — partly prompted by The Global Mail — conducted by the Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, whose job it is to ensure that federal government departments comply with FOI laws.
The Global Mail's complaint to Professor McMillan's office about how its FOI application was rebuffed by Immigration officials (who claimed they lacked the staff to deal with it) was one of 27 complaints that led to the Information Commissioner's investigation. His report, released September 26, savages the Department of Immigration's closed culture and poor FOI performance.
The investigation has found that 80 per cent of sensitive or complex FOI requests taken over by the Department of Immigration's central office in Canberra were not handled within the statutory time limits under FOI laws — a result that compares unfavourably with many other government departments and one that cannot be explained away by the complexity of FOI requests to Immigration.
The report discloses that the Department of Immigration itself became concerned late last year about the backlog of FOI requests and contracted the consultancy firm Ernst & Young to investigate.
Ernst & Young uncovered a culture of fear among immigration officials when it came to releasing information to the public. In their previously unreleased report to the department's managers, Ernst & Young consultants wrote: "FOI staff report that many Department of Immigration staff are not comfortable with the new disclosure environment where there is a widespread fear of releasing information and a failure to recognise that FOI is everyone's responsibility."
Ernst & Young urged Immigration's chiefs to counter what they called a "fear of releasing information" culture within the department, saying there was a lack of consistent leadership for changing internal attitudes toward FOI.
The Information Commissioner's investigation delved deeper into Immigration's culture and discovered that senior FOI officers in the department were under orders to keep their bosses — including the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen — informed of what information was to be publicly released, a requirement that contributed to delays. The Information Commissioner's report said: "It would be reasonable to assume that they may be inhibited about negotiating time frames with senior staff of the department or the Minister's office."
The Information Commissioner said everybody within the Department of Immigration needed to understand "that the Minister's office cannot override that decision [to release information under FOI laws] and accordingly that release will not necessarily be deferred until there is a response from the Minister's office".
The report also found that lax record keeping within Immigration contributed to delays dealing with FOI requests. In one case examined by the Information Commissioner, it took Immigration 11 months just to find the information that had been requested. Immigration officials, the investigation found, were unwilling to give people seeking information under FOI laws a definite time frame, even when the requests were months past their due date. One applicant was simply told: "It is difficult to predict how much time a given request will take."
This attitude, the Information Commissioner said, runs counter to FOI laws, which impose specific time frames for all stages of FOI processing. Even the Information Commissioner's investigators found themselves being stymied by Immigration officials.
Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) requests for status updates sometimes require multiple emails and phone calls. In one case, for example, the OAIC sought information on the Department of Immigration's handling of a particular FOI request on 20 February, 29 February and 13 March 2012, and on 14 March 2012 received a one-line response: "A draft decision has been made and the decision maker is undertaking consultation with internal business areas."
The Information Commissioner has listed the problems his investigators found with Immigration's performance in dealing with FOI requests and has given the department three months to respond.
The problems include not enough staff, inadequate arrangements for controlling delays, inadequate staff guidance, poor record keeping, inadequate communication with people applying for information, and poor engagement with the Information Commissioner's staff.
The Immigration Department's acting head, Martin Bowles, admitted the department's failings in a letter appended to the Information Commissioner's report. Mr Bowles cited the department's own internal review this year of its FOI performance: "The review concluded that the FOI team's established processes and procedures are not the principal, nor even a significant cause of the department's poor FOI performance. It concluded that the major contributing factor is the lack of a whole of department approach to effective FOI management."
Mr Bowles said Immigration was putting in place changes which included instructing all Immigration staff they had to meet FOI requests on time, that FOI performance be included in the performance agreements of senior staff, that there be more training for FOI staff and that the department improve its record keeping.