WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC

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WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Alexander Sadleir 1/13/12 3:18 AM
As I have been selling around town, I'm currently pursuing the idea of
porting the WhatDoTheyKnow website to Australia, specifically the
Federal Government.

A quick refresher: WhatDoTheyKnow is a website that allows UK citizens
to make FOI requests online, the results of which and the
correspondence that led to those results is made publicly accessible.
It is estimated that up 15% of UK FOI requests are made through the
site now. There is work in progress to get the software behind the
site which they call "Alaveteli" distributed to more countries in
2012.

Porting it to Australia requires some minor technical setup around
entering all the applicable government agencies and categorising them,
a task I am already doing for some other work. You can follow these
efforts @ http://tickets.openaustraliafoundation.org.au/browse/WDTK

However to launch it proper would require some extra resources, namely
a more powerful server than I currently have and some occasional
volunteers to moderate the site (ensuring that government agencies do
not miss release deadlines or make responses that are not in line with
their obligations under the FOI Act).

Thoughts? Comments?

Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Pat 1/15/12 5:43 PM
Hi Alexander,

I think this is a fantastic idea and I'd love to help get it implemented in Australia. As a tiny bit of background, I'm a law grad and have to deal with FOI requests sometimes. Maybe two or three weeks ago, I was wondering out loud to some other lawyery folk about whether a similar system would be useful to them. There is certainly an interest in such a system.

I had a quick look at some of the tickets on Jira and noticed that your "Annual FOI Act Review" list might be easier managed initially with a bit of tweaking. For example, IP Australia handle Designs Office, Patents Office & Trade Marks Office requests all from the same contact details/forms. I don't know if there's a specific advantage to listing each of these offices separately.

One small gripe with the existing UK site, I don't think it appraises applicants well enough of fees that might be associated with an FOI application. This might be due to differences in common practice in the UK versus in Australia though. Here, some places have an application fee as a matter of course and may then additionally charge for photocopying or staff time spent searching for documents. I don't know if the existing WDTK interface provides sufficient details for the agency to respond with a request for payment. Perhaps accompanying this, there should also be some pointers to the disclosure logs that each agency keeps. Better attention for these logs might also help mitigate duplicate requests.

Lastly, will this just be dealing with the Federal regime? Most (probably all) of the States have an additional regime. In NSW, this happens under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009. I also know at one point the Office of the Information Commissioner was working with the (then) RTA to build some kind of web-based platform for handing requests under GIPA, but I've got no idea whether anything came of this.

Just some thoughts. Let me know how I can best be of assistance.

Pat
Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Alexander Sadleir 1/15/12 7:04 PM
On Mon, Jan 16, 2012 at 12:43 PM, Pat <patrick...@gmail.com> wrote:

> I had a quick look at some of the tickets on Jira and noticed that your
> "Annual FOI Act Review" list might be easier managed initially with a bit of
> tweaking. For example, IP Australia handle Designs Office, Patents Office &
> Trade Marks Office requests all from the same contact details/forms. I don't
> know if there's a specific advantage to listing each of these offices
> separately.

Yeah, that is a specific example where I am taking some artistic
licence to just list IP Australia instead of each of the offices under
AG's. I think this aspect of what-request-goes-where will be a bit of
trial and error for both parties.

> One small gripe with the existing UK site, I don't think it appraises
> applicants well enough of fees that might be associated with an FOI
> application. This might be due to differences in common practice in the UK
> versus in Australia though. Here, some places have an application fee as a
> matter of course and may then additionally charge for photocopying or staff
> time spent searching for documents.

I think the most valuable part of the website should be the plain
english explanations of how FOI requests work. We're not there yet
though.

One of the reasons I thought that now is the time to launch this site
is because many of those fees went away in the latest version of the
Federal FOI Act - no application fee and 5 hours decision making for
free. But now I look at the OAIC website I think I've confused it with
the ACT system where minimal searching is also free; there's still a
$15/hr charge for search and retrieval time. There is consideration
for waving the fee when "The cost of calculating and collecting a
charge might exceed the cost to the agency of processing the request."
and "The agency was able to identify and retrieve the document easily
and at marginal cost." so it can't hurt to tell users to push back on
small charges.

And for the larger charges the public nature of the website could be
good - someone could give up on a request but then another person
might do a web search and find the request, allowing them to make a
similar one while paying the already estimated charge.

> I don't know if the existing WDTK
> interface provides sufficient details for the agency to respond with a
> request for payment.

The WDTK help documentation says "Making an FOI request is nearly
always free. Authorities often include unnecessary, scary, boilerplate
in acknowledgement messages saying they "may" charge a fee. Ignore
such notices. "
It's a feature not a bug for them (there's functionality for postal
responses but not payment). They want the website to enable how FOI
should be, not how it is.

> Perhaps accompanying this, there should also be some
> pointers to the disclosure logs that each agency keeps. Better attention for
> these logs might also help mitigate duplicate requests.

Yep, from what I see the Disclosure Logs and Information Publication
Scheme aim to maximize the pro-disclosure culture so FOI requests are
less necessary. Maybe in the future we can even help people find the
right existing documents before they're allowed to submit.

> Lastly, will this just be dealing with the Federal regime? Most (probably
> all) of the States have an additional regime. In NSW, this happens under the
> Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009. I also know at one point
> the Office of the Information Commissioner was working with the (then) RTA
> to build some kind of web-based platform for handing requests under GIPA,
> but I've got no idea whether anything came of this.

I have some desire to request things from state/territory governments.
Certainly there is scope in the system to have a handful of different
Right to Know laws because in the UK they have an environmental
information request system too (so the email will reference the right
legislation).
But then the challenge is just getting the lists of
organisations/emails and writing up any special help text that's
needed.

>
> Just some thoughts. Let me know how I can best be of assistance.

Definitely a couple more things to think about, thanks!

Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Alexander Sadleir 2/7/12 1:25 AM
I've put the current state of the help documentation into a Google
Docs page for easy viewing and comments/additions @
https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1LUCs3QtdnV0fZttsR-E5mQeowb6g6Hwu5aUPfwEPKAY

They are also available in raw (R)HTML templates @
https://github.com/maxious/alavetelitheme/tree/master/lib/views/help

Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Craig Thomler 3/17/12 11:52 AM
Hi Alex,

I am interested as well - as you'll see from my list on Google docs of agency FOI contacts - which drew from the OpenAustralia list (which has a number of errors) and the PM&C and OAIC lists (which lack contact info).

I now have a list which is over 98% accurate which OA is welcome to take and reuse.

I also have the foiaustralia.net.au domain and have plans in progress to do the same plus more of what OA seems to be planning - but not using the same platform as the UK.

My goal was to also include state FOI (and RTI) - where there are substantial differences in law.

I also have an FOI request in to all agencies at this time to get access to a set of information useful to those working in the online space across Australia which I am using to also build a model for the response process by agencies and will be revealing as much of the processes and responses as possible without privacy considerations.

It will also be reported back to the OAIC to support them in strengthening FOI policy and advice based on the actual responses from agencies and the discrepancies and different understandings of the laws.

Generally I've found the FOI officers very helpful, supportive and open (with a few notable exceptions), however the processes are quite bureaucratic and structured in a protective manner - which is understandable given the legal ramifications, if not preferable.

The discrimination federally that FOI only applies to 'documents' and not information is an interesting one and I've had several chats with the OAIC and the Commissioner, John, about this.

Has OA spoken with John McMillan or his team at all about what they are doing - and would you like me to provide an introduction?

I am happy to work with OA in some way around this, provided the intentions are positive and directed at generating a better outcome for all involved. there is a high degree of education needed as well as support mechanisms as many Australians are unaware of what FOI means or that there is such legislation, let alone how to correctly make an FOI request.

Cheers,

Craig

Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Craig Thomler 3/17/12 11:59 AM
FYI my FOI list (OA's list included several agencies exempt from FOI and had some misspellings of contact details, etc):

FOI contacts for Australian government agencies - https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ap1exl80wB8OdGdKTXp1SVpKN2hjZWZ5RXpURGtFWkE

Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Craig Thomler 3/17/12 12:06 PM
Just a quick note on the help documentation - please note that many Australian FOI requests are for people's personal files and information held about them.

OA should not be publishing these records openly to the web without the express permission of the FOI applicant in order to protect their privacy.

Also a number of agencies are pursuing an approach of publishing FOIed information (that is not private) on their own FOI sites at the same time as they are provided to the applicant. It may be easier and more effective for OA to link to these rather than republish in their own site. (note that this approach is a tactic that removes the 'exclusive' for media outlets they have previously had from FOI requests).

IMHO this is a good move, government doesn't exist to give commercial advantage to a particular news provider, however some journos have complained that without an exclusive they have no reason to request the information and therefore it will lead to less openness. I would argue that if journos were only requesting the information as a 'gotcha' to sell copies, rather than for public information goals, that they are not doing their jobs well. :)

Cheers,

Craig

Re: [alaveteli-dev] Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Alexander Sadleir 3/26/12 8:17 PM
Some interesting developments in Australia today that might need some
consideration for our local implementation:
http://oaic.govspace.gov.au/2012/03/27/foi-charges-review-released/
(have a look at pages 6/7)

In short:
Agencies may now provide a more straightforward way of getting
documents off them "administrative access schemes" (AAS) and if you
use that contact the request is practically free.
So do we need to provide 2 email addresses for some agencies and UI to
pick the AAS where available?

If an agency has an AAS and you don't use it and make an FOI request
instead, there may be a $50 fine (uh oh). If you use an AAS and they
don't respond in 30 days you can then make an FOI request that is free
(yay). If you make an FOI request in any case and they don't complete
it in 60 days, that is also free (yay). (50% discount for 37 days, 25%
for 30 days)

FOI requests under 5 hours (including agencies that don't have AAS)
are free. Even better, a 10 hour or under FOI request is now only $50.
So users of the australian website might be very happy to just pay
that and get on their way, rather than arguing to get it free "in the
public interest" as our website help was going to suggest.
Payment systems will need some consideration, AFAIK only the Dept of
Infrastructure allow credit cards for FOI charges, everybody else
still uses cheque/money order. Will they take bitcoin? ;)

Thoughts?

On Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 7:39 PM, Seb Bacon <seb....@gmail.com> wrote:
> Hi,
>
> I'm currently project lead for Alaveteli.  I just found this
> OpenAustralia discussion and thought I'd chip in :)
>
> On Jan 16, 3:04 am, "Alex (Maxious) Sadleir" <maxi...@gmail.com>


> wrote:
>> > I don't know if the existing WDTK
>> > interface provides sufficient details for the agency to respond with a
>> > request for payment.
>>
>> The WDTK help documentation says "Making an FOI request is nearly
>> always free. Authorities often include unnecessary, scary, boilerplate
>> in acknowledgement messages saying they "may" charge a fee. Ignore
>> such notices. "
>> It's a feature not a bug for them (there's functionality for postal
>> responses but not payment). They want the website to enable how FOI
>> should be, not how it is.
>
> Exactly.  I don't know anything about the .au law, but the principle
> that you shouldn't have to pay for reasonable requests is an important
> one wherever you are, IMO.  By publishing requests online, publicly,
> we are giving a strong disincentive to bodies that are reluctant to
> respond to use the "you'll have to pay" defence.  An Alaveteli site
> isn't just a tool for making requests: it's also a powerful advocacy
> tool.  A page to a body with a load of "refused on the grounds that
> the user must pay" requests speaks volumes, especially if a visitor
> can easily see that other bodies don't do this.

Re: [alaveteli-dev] Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Seb Bacon 3/27/12 1:25 AM
Interesting -- thanks very much for the update!

I find it extraordinary that an Information Commissioner who believes
that "no one should be deterred from requesting government information
because of costs" is recommending a cap of "only" $950 for FOI
requests.

It's interesting that fees charged in 2010-11 were estimated to
recover 1.68% of the estimated total cost. So fees are not about
recovering cost, but about "initiating a discussion with applicants
about narrowing and refining the scope of broad requests".

As a result of this tactic, while it's great that they are increasing
access to free FOI requests, they are also adding in new hurdles to
understanding, I think.  Another of their aims is: "the charges
framework should be clear and easy for agencies to administer and
applicants to understand".  I think not charging would be the easiest
system!

From a quick skim, as I understand it, an AAS is a request for
personal information -- is that right?  In that case, we shouldn't be
supporting it on an Alaveteli site anyway, as it's not something that
people would want publishing?

Thanks

Seb

--
skype: seb.bacon
mobile: 07790 939224
land: 01531 671074

Re: [alaveteli-dev] Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Alexander Sadleir 3/27/12 2:07 AM
On Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 7:25 PM, Seb Bacon <seb....@gmail.com> wrote:
>
> As a result of this tactic, while it's great that they are increasing
> access to free FOI requests, they are also adding in new hurdles to
> understanding, I think.  Another of their aims is: "the charges
> framework should be clear and easy for agencies to administer and
> applicants to understand".  I think not charging would be the easiest
> system!

There are some trolls abusing the free caps which lead to this review:
"One agency at a consultation session described a case where an
applicant lodged requests about 10 different subject matters in a
single email, along with the instruction that they be considered
separately so as to receive the free decision making time for each
request. DCCEE also described an applicant who submitted 700 FOI
requests in five months." "Although s 24(2)  allows agencies and
ministers to treat multiple requests as a single request for the
purposes of s 24, ACCC, DoHA and DRET described difficulties in making
use of this provision."

Doesn't mean some people agree: "DRET noted that the abolition of
application fees has made the administration of FOI requests more
efficient, as it
removed the administrative processes that were previously required to
process relatively small amounts of money."

>
> From a quick skim, as I understand it, an AAS is a request for
> personal information -- is that right?  In that case, we shouldn't be
> supporting it on an Alaveteli site anyway, as it's not something that
> people would want publishing?

We don't know yet - an agency could setup an AAS as FOI-lite for
whatever kind of information they have to deal with (pages 55-56) so
it might be personal records or it might not. "The scheme should
explain the type of requests that the agency will accept under the
scheme, and those falling outside the scheme." It would release them
from a lot of obligations under the FOI Act though (uh oh) like
deadlines, reviews, publishing that info on their website after giving
it to one person.

Re: [alaveteli-dev] Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Seb Bacon 3/27/12 2:16 AM
On 27 March 2012 10:07, Alex (Maxious) Sadleir <max...@gmail.com> wrote:
> On Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 7:25 PM, Seb Bacon <seb....@gmail.com> wrote:
>>
>> As a result of this tactic, while it's great that they are increasing
>> access to free FOI requests, they are also adding in new hurdles to
>> understanding, I think.  Another of their aims is: "the charges
>> framework should be clear and easy for agencies to administer and
>> applicants to understand".  I think not charging would be the easiest
>> system!
>
> There are some trolls abusing the free caps which lead to this review:
> "One agency at a consultation session described a case where an
> applicant lodged requests about 10 different subject matters in a
> single email, along with the instruction that they be considered
> separately so as to receive the free decision making time for each
> request. DCCEE also described an applicant who submitted 700 FOI
> requests in five months." "Although s 24(2)  allows agencies and
> ministers to treat multiple requests as a single request for the
> purposes of s 24, ACCC, DoHA and DRET described difficulties in making
> use of this provision."
>
> Doesn't mean some people agree: "DRET noted that the abolition of
> application fees has made the administration of FOI requests more
> efficient, as it
> removed the administrative processes that were previously required to
> process relatively small amounts of money."

In the UK an authority can ignore a request if it's vexatious.  This
seems a better solution than introducing fees that limit peoples'
right to access.  Obviously there are costs involved in defining
something as vexatious, especially with a combative troll... but there
are costs involved in running a democracy that we generally take to be
outweighed by the benefits.  That would be my argument, anyway :)
Will be interesting to see what the UK review of FOI is going to say
on these matters, when it comes out.

>> From a quick skim, as I understand it, an AAS is a request for
>> personal information -- is that right?  In that case, we shouldn't be
>> supporting it on an Alaveteli site anyway, as it's not something that
>> people would want publishing?
>
> We don't know yet - an agency could setup an AAS as FOI-lite for
> whatever kind of information they have to deal with (pages 55-56) so
> it might be personal records or it might not. "The scheme should
> explain the type of requests that the agency will accept under the
> scheme, and those falling outside the scheme." It would release them
> from a lot of obligations under the FOI Act though (uh oh) like
> deadlines, reviews, publishing that info on their website after giving
> it to one person.

Uh oh indeed.

I think I read that they have a general obligation to help you forward
your request to the appropriate place?

Could we therefore just send requests to a single address (e.g. the
FOI one) with boilerplate that says "please forward this request to
the relevant AAS scheme if a charge would otherwise be avoided"?

Re: [alaveteli-dev] Re: WhatDoTheyKnow FOI helper for Australia - RFC Alexander Sadleir 3/27/12 2:27 AM
On Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 8:16 PM, Seb Bacon <seb....@gmail.com> wrote:
> On 27 March 2012 10:07, Alex (Maxious) Sadleir <max...@gmail.com> wrote:
>> On Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 7:25 PM, Seb Bacon <seb....@gmail.com> wrote:
>
>>> From a quick skim, as I understand it, an AAS is a request for
>>> personal information -- is that right?  In that case, we shouldn't be
>>> supporting it on an Alaveteli site anyway, as it's not something that
>>> people would want publishing?
>>
>> We don't know yet - an agency could setup an AAS as FOI-lite for
>> whatever kind of information they have to deal with (pages 55-56) so
>> it might be personal records or it might not. "The scheme should
>> explain the type of requests that the agency will accept under the
>> scheme, and those falling outside the scheme." It would release them
>> from a lot of obligations under the FOI Act though (uh oh) like
>> deadlines, reviews, publishing that info on their website after giving
>> it to one person.
>
> Uh oh indeed.
>
> I think I read that they have a general obligation to help you forward
> your request to the appropriate place?
>
> Could we therefore just send requests to a single address (e.g. the
> FOI one) with boilerplate that says "please forward this request to
> the relevant AAS scheme if a charge would otherwise be avoided"?

Oooh, good one! Problem solved!

Was good reading this paper though, just found an explicit statement
by the Agriculture department and quoted/acknowledged by the
Information Commissioner that "under s 15(2), applicants do not have
to identify themselves and under s 11(2)(a) an applicant’s right of
access is not affected by the reason for which they are seeking
access".
s 15(2) being "The request must: give details of how notices under
this Act may be sent to the applicant (for example, by providing an
electronic address to which notices may be sent by electronic
communication).". One less hurdle!