Protect our public servants from FOI: Home Affairs

The Home Affairs Department wants its junior and middle-ranking bureaucrats protected from having their names revealed in documents released to the public under freedom of information laws.

Changes to rules for government agencies releasing their documents should make it easier to withhold the names of lower-ranking public servants and contractors, the agency told a Senate committee in a submission.

Home Affairs championed reforms lowering the bar for withholding the personal details of its non-senior executive officials, saying they would protect staff mental health and safety, and safeguard bureaucrats against grooming by criminal organisations.

"Releasing the names [and] other identifying information of medical personnel who undertake medical assessments of visa applicants generally poses unacceptable safety risks to these personnel," the department said.

Revealing the identities of detention services staff exposed them to recriminations.

"Release of names also impacts on the quality of security reporting due to staff reluctance to submit security reports for fear that their details will later be released under FOI to the subject of the report.

"In a specific example, there was a direct link established between the release of a security information report by the department under FOI and a detention officer being confronted in an aggressive and abusive manner by the subject of the report."

Home Affairs already removes the names of public servants but said it had to show "real harm" would befall staff if they were identified, a rule it said created delays. The department wants changes to freedom of information laws allowing it to withhold personal details if it finds they're irrelevant to a request for documents.

"This would provide for the protection of workers and reduce the potential impact to processing times."

The department admitted some requests would require officials to be named, but said this information should be made available to "impacted individuals" outside freedom of information laws.

A Senate committee scrutinising the bill to change freedom of information laws is expected to report by November 30, after crossbencher and Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick proposed the reforms.

Senator Patrick has designed the changes as a remedy to what the bill's explanatory document describes as a dysfunctional freedom of information scheme.

"These changes are designed to address the considerable dysfunction that has developed in our FOI system which is now characterised by chronic bureaucratic delay and obstruction, unacceptably lengthy review processes, and what appears to be an increased preparedness by agencies to incur very large legal expenses to oppose the release of information," it said.

The bill, if it passed parliament, would force the government to fill all three senior bureaucratic roles overseeing the freedom of information scheme, force agencies to reveal their spending on legal advice fighting requests for documents, and let applicants seek reviews of FOI decisions in the appeals tribunal. Parliamentarians would also avoid costs for freedom of information requests.

Federal agencies and ministerial offices charged $505,000 for freedom of information documents in 2016-17 but received $147,000, showing that many applicants abandoned their requests after seeing the cost.

Home Affairs opposed a change that would stop agencies changing their arguments against releasing documents during information commissioner reviews of government decisions to refuse access.

"The proposed restrictions would impede the ability for the review officer to reach an informed decision," the agency said.

Home Affairs complained that the rise of digital technology had grown the amount of documents it held and increased its work in responding to freedom of information requests. The department said deadlines required by laws should reflect this change with a "tiered structure" based on the size of right to information requests.

The former Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the predecessor to Home Affairs until a machinery of government change took effect in December, received by far the most freedom of information requests in 2016-17 among government agencies.

It refused five per cent of the nearly 18,200 applications it received, and partially released documents in 32 per cent of cases.

This story Protect our public servants from FOI: Home Affairs first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.