The successful job applications of federal bureaucrats used to be open to public scrutiny. Photo: Lyn Osborn
Public servants can no longer read the job applications of rivals who beat them to a promotion, the information watchdog has ruled.
People have long been able to use freedom of information law to access almost all details about government recruits, including their job applications, referee reports and any notes made by selection panels.
However, Australian Information Commissioner John McMillan has moved to protect bureaucrats' privacy following a disputed promotion in the Department of Human Services.
Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan. Photo: Gary Schafer
Professor McMillan, who oversees FOI and privacy law, was convinced by changes in privacy legislation, community attitudes and internet technology, which made it easier to disclose personal details "to the world at large".
A male worker at the department, "Y", had applied for a job in 2011, which was won by a female colleague, "X".
Y and another unsuccessful candidate asked Merit Protection Commissioner Ann Godwin to review the decision, though a review committee affirmed X was the best candidate.
Y then filed an FOI request for the documents related to the decision, and Ms Godwin's office agreed to release: a four-page selection summary; a comparison of the applicants; X's job application, resume and claims against the selection criteria; her referee report; and nine pages of handwritten comments the selection panel had made about her. Some details, such as X's name, phone and date of birth, were censored.
Ms Godwin's office also decided Y could view, but not keep a copy of, X's submission to the promotion review committee, which included photocopies of her awards and qualifications.
However, X challenged the decision to disclose her personal information, expressing fears for her personal security and safety.
She was also concerned Y might alter or misuse the documents, which she had given in confidence, and said she believed he had made false accusations about her in the promotions appeals process.
She also said she and Y worked alongside each other and disclosing her private information would affect their professional relationship and potentially ruin her reputation.
Professor McMillan acknowledged the law had previously deemed that "a successful applicant's [job] claims should be opened to public scrutiny and their claim to privacy should be deemed as abandoned".
But he pointed to growing concerns about how the internet could be used to breach bureaucrats' privacy.
"Material that is published on the web may remain publicly available for an indefinite period," Professor McMillan said.
"It may cause anxiety to a public servant that material about their suitability for a particular appointment can be publicly available long after the appointment and to an indeterminate audience.
"There is also a growing and understandable concern that personal information that is made available on the web can be misused or used differently by others; for example, for identity profiling or theft or unwanted contact."
He ruled that Y could access the selection panel's summary of its decision to give X the job – with her identifying details removed – but not the other documents.
Public servants regularly doubt the merit of recruitment, though few lodge a formal challenge.
The 2008 Whistleblowing in the Australian Public Sector study found one in three federal bureaucrats said they had direct evidence of favouritism in a hiring or promotion decision.
However, the Merit Protection Commissioner received just 44 requests to review a promotion in 2012-13.