FOI requests, costs and charges over time
Dr James Popple is the Freedom of Information Commissioner
Charges under the FOI Act have long been a point of discussion, as seen in the recent Review of charges under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Charges Review). Without pre-empting the Government’s consideration of, or response to, the Charges Review recommendations, this post will discuss the relationship between FOI requests and costs since the FOI Act was enacted in 1982.
In several recent presentations, including at the May 2012 joint meeting of the Information Advisory Committee and the Privacy Advisory Committee, I’ve used this graph to demonstrate the relationship between the number of FOI requests, the agency costs attributed to the FOI Act, and the actual fees and charges collected:
A similar graph was included in Part 1 of the Charges Review, based on statistics collected from agencies and ministers and published in FOI Annual Reports each year. The data behind the graph is available at the end of this post, along with a PowerPoint version of the graph which uses transitions to illustrate each new set of data as it is plotted on the graph.
Number of requests
There were 906,639 FOI requests to Australian Government agencies and ministers between December 1982 and June 2011. This includes 23,605 requests in 2010-11, an increase of 9.3% on the previous year.
However, that increase comes from a low base, as the two years before that had the lowest numbers of requests in more than 20 years.
Since the 2000-01 financial year, FOI statistics collected from agencies and ministers have also included a break-down between personal FOI requests (people seeking their own personal information) and other requests received.
Requests for personal information have always accounted for the vast majority of requests made under the FOI Act. In 2010-11, they made up 19,504 or 82.6% of all requests.
As the graph illustrates, the number of personal requests in recent years has been historically low. This can be at least partly attributed to agencies providing applicants with increasing access to their own personal information outside the formal FOI Act process. Examples include government online self-service portals such as those provided by the Department of Human Services and the Australian Taxation Office.
As noted in the Charges Review report, the OAIC encourages the use of such administrative arrangements: for personal information and other information. FOI provides a right to access, but that does not mean that it is the only means of access: it will frequently be easier and cheaper for agencies to give people access to information outside of the FOI Act.
There was only a 3.6 increase in the number of personal requests in 2010-11 compared with the previous year. By contrast, the 4,101 requests for information other than personal information received represented a 48.4% increase from similar requests received in 2009-10.
These requests are typically more complex than personal requests. As a consequence, they take longer and are generally more costly to process.
Over the life of the FOI Act, agencies and ministers have reported costs of $498.4 million for processing FOI requests. These figures, which are estimates, include staff costs on processing FOI requests as well as non-labour costs related to FOI, such as staff training or legal advice.
The total reported cost of administering the FOI Act was reported as $36.3 million in 2010-11, an increase of 32.1% on the previous year.
Fees and charges
As the final element of the graph shows, the fees and charges collected from applicants have never constituted anything like full recovery of estimated FOI costs.
In 2010-11, $0.609 million was recovered in fees and charges – 1.68% of the total reported cost. Over the life of the Act, the fees and charges recovered as a proportion of the total reported cost each year have ranged from 0.33% (1982-83), to 4.91% (1994-95), with an average of 2.08%.
For more information
For a more detailed discussion about the subject of charges and the FOI Act, I’d recommend that you read the Charges Review, which puts forward a number of recommendations for reform in this area.
One of the principles underpinning the recommendations of the Charges Review is that, because FOI supports accountable, transparent and responsive government, a substantial part of the cost should be borne by government rather than applicants. The data discussed in this post shows that this has indeed been the case over the life of the Act.
However, as the Information Commissioner noted in the foreword to the Charges Review, a revised charges framework could enable the FOI Act to provide better, more efficient public access to government information. One way in which this could be done is by encouraging greater levels of free and informal access to government information outside the FOI Act. As discussed above, this has already had benefits in terms of requests for personal information.
These files contain the graph and the data on which the graph is based (as well as other related data from previous FOI annual reports):
- FOI requests, costs and charges collected PPT 1871KB
- FOI requests, costs and charges collected DOC 183KB
A dataset containing the above data is also available in CSV (comma-separated values) format on data.gov.au for you to examine and reuse:
- Freedom of Information request numbers, estimated costs and actual charges collected 1982-83 to 2010-11 (external link to data.gov.au)
This is the first time the OAIC has published data on data.gov.au, which was established to encourage public access to and reuse of government data. I would welcome any feedback and suggestions for improvement you may have about this particular data or the general subject of making more OAIC data available online.