Annual Report 2006-2007
 

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Your location: Performance > Outcome 3 > Output 3.1 > 3.1.3 Freedom of information and archival research and clearance

OUTPUT 3.1: Public information services and public diplomacy

3.1.3 Freedom of information and archival research and clearance

On this page: Overview :: Document access :: Freedom of information :: Historical publications and information :: Archival examination :: Recordkeeping :: Outlook

Overview

A review of the department’s processes for managing Freedom of Information (FOI) cases resulted in the transfer of FOI functions to a new FOI section in the Domestic Legal Branch and the appointment of a specialist FOI officer. These changes have better equipped the department to provide appropriate guidance to decision-makers and to respond expeditiously to requests for access to sensitive documents.

Our historical research and publications program continued to produce diverse and innovative output covering key events and themes in Australian foreign and trade policy, helping us foster greater public understanding of our functions.

We strengthened our records management systems and practices and prepared for implementation of an Electronic Document and Records Management System to enhance the department’s electronic document management and retrieval capabilities.

Document access

The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) extends the right to obtain access to information in the Government’s possession. Access is limited only by exemptions that protect essential public interests and the private and business affairs of persons and organisations about which government agencies may collect and hold information.

Freedom of information

The department finalised 97 applications, slightly fewer than the previous period (see table 13). As with the previous period, requests often involved a substantial volume of information and/or covered complex and sensitive topics. Where access decisions were made outside the statutory deadline, it was often due to the volume or sensitive nature of the documents. The department managed its FOI caseload proactively, liaising closely with applicants on the content and processing of the requests, including where there were delays in decision-making.

Seven requests for internal review of access decisions were received. Eleven internal review decisions were made, including four carried over from the previous financial year. No appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal were lodged in 2006–07. One appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal lodged in 2005–06 is continuing.

The department regularly presented training on our FOI obligations during induction programs and executive-level training courses. A presentation was also made to Senior Executive Service Band 2 decision-makers to assist them with their internal review responsibilities. We provided assistance on FOI processing, reporting and practice to portfolio bodies.

There were no applications received under section 48 of the FOI Act for amendment of records.

The department met fully its obligations under sections 8 and 9 of the FOI Act, including the provision of statistical reports to the Attorney-General’s Department. Our statement in accordance with section 8 of the FOI Act is at Appendix 4.

The department processes FOI requests received in the offices of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Trade and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs under section 16 of the FOI Act.

TABLE 13. REQUESTS PROCESSED UNDER THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT 1982
 
2006–07
2005–06
2004–05
Requests for information
 
 
 
Access granted in full
23
15
22
Access granted in part
40
50
21
Access refused
21
24
26
Requests transferred or withdrawn
13
20
18
Total
97
109
87
Requests subject to review or legal appeal
 
 
 
Requests for internal review (s.54)
7
17
7
Appeals lodged with the AAT (s.55)
0
1
0
Ombudsman
0
1
1

Historical publications and information

The department researches and publishes on Australia’s foreign and trade policy history. Our publications are an important resource for scholars and also help to explain the department’s functions and activities to the public.

At the 20th anniversary ministerial meeting of the Cairns Group in Cairns in September 2006, Mr Vaile launched the fourth publication in the series Australia in the world: The Foreign Affairs and Trade files titled The struggle for trade liberalisation in agriculture: Australia and the Cairns Group in the Uruguay Round. In December 2006, the department launched Documents on Australian Foreign Policy: Australia and Papua New Guinea 1966–1969. To mark the department’s celebration of International Women’s Day, in March 2007 Mr Truss launched Women with a mission: personal perspectives, an edited compilation of the experiences of nine women heads of mission.

The department continued research for other publications, including documents on Australia and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and on Australia and the United Kingdom’s Withdrawal East of Suez and its accession to the European Economic Community. We also worked on a large monograph on the history of the Australian passport.

In April 2007, the department participated in the Ninth International Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents in Dublin, where we received recognition for the creativity and quality of our publications, particularly Women with a mission. In collaboration with the University of Tasmania and the Australian Institute of International Affairs (Tasmania Branch), we organised the inaugural Sir James Plimsoll Lecture, presented by Mr Downer in May 2007. This new lecture series will be held annually in Tasmania, focusing on international affairs and diplomacy. We continued preparations with the National Archives of Australia for the second R G Neale Lecture to be held in August 2007.

We responded to 192 requests for historical information from public and official researchers. In most cases, requests were answered using departmental material.

Archival examination

Departmental records more than 30 years old are available for public access under the Archives Act 1983. Prior to release to the public, the National Archives of Australia (NAA) refers highly classified records to the department for expert assessment regarding possible exemption in light of sensitivities relating to intelligence, security, defence or international relations.

Table 13 (below) outlines requests received by the department under the Archives Act 1983. We received 635 requests from NAA, foreign governments and other agencies for archival records to be assessed for public access. These included files or documents requested by public researchers under section 40 of the Archives Act 1983 relating to nuclear non-proliferation, uranium enrichment facilities in Australia, disarmament, five-power defence arrangements, Australia’s relations with Asia and Australian policy on Antarctica. We also cleared files relating to a number of specific projects, including records on Australia’s relations with China in 1976 for public release to coincide with the 2007 R G Neale Lecture, files for research material in support of the Australian War Memorial’s Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, and 1977 Cabinet records due for release in January 2008 under the 30-year rule.

Of the 635 requests received, 298 files or documents contained at least one exemption on national security or international relations grounds. We referred 19 files or other documents to other agencies (Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Department of Defence) and 11 requests to foreign governments (United Kingdom, United States and Canada) for clearance. We processed six requests from foreign governments (United States, Canada and the United Kingdom) and 27 requests from other agencies.

We received one request for reconsideration of access decisions under the Archives Act 1983 but no appeals were made to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

TABLE 14. REQUESTS ASSESSED UNDER THE ARCHIVES ACT 1983
 
2006–07
2005–06
2004–05
Files received
635
675
505
Total files assessed
636
713
574
Files completed
629
713
572
Number of folios assessed
113 913
139 013
103 470
Open access
318
337
301
Wholly or partly exempt
298
376
271
Subject to review
0
2
2
Subject to appeal
0
0
0

Recordkeeping

The department further enhanced its records management procedures in compliance with recommendations in the Australian National Audit Office’s 2003 report on Recordkeeping in Large Commonwealth Agencies and relevant legislation, and in line with the work program set out in the department’s Strategic Plan for Records Management 2004–07.

We developed and implemented a major new program—the Recordkeeping Initiative 2006–to strengthen staff accountability and recordkeeping systems and practices. Key outcomes included a review and upgrade of our business classification scheme, seminars for all Canberra staff on their recordkeeping responsibilities, allocation of additional human resources to support divisions, and the inclusion of better practice recordkeeping requirements in monthly administrative checklists and internal evaluation processes.

Following on from the scoping study for an Electronic Document and Records Management System (EDRMS) completed in 2005–06, we undertook a tender process resulting in the selection of software to support its implementation. The EDRMS implementation project will commence in 2007–08 with the aim of enhancing the department’s electronic document management and retrieval capabilities.

We completed 34 records management projects—20 projects in Canberra to assist divisions maintain the currency of their files, nine sentencing and disposal projects in Canberra and five in overseas posts.

Outlook

In 2007–08, we will continue to review our FOI processes to ensure best practice in fulfilling our obligations under the FOI Act.

We will continue to research and publish on significant historical foreign and trade policy events. These publications make a valuable contribution to scholarship and are a useful resource in our public diplomacy work both domestically and internationally. We will again co-host both the annual R G Neale and Plimsoll lectures.

Records management will remain a significant challenge. Progress on the EDRMS implementation project will be a major focus, including development of change management and training strategies to coincide with the rollout of this system. We will also continue efforts to reinforce accountability and support staff in meeting their recordkeeping obligations.

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