Budget 2014: OAIC disbanded as privacy, FOI oversight redistributed

OAIC's privacy and freedom of information (FOI) functions to be divided among Australian Human Rights Commission, Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Commonwealth Ombudsman, A-G's Department.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Procedural oversight of privacy, freedom of information (FOI) and other administrative functions has been overhauled in the Budget with the disbanding of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and the reallocation of its constituent tasks to other government agencies.

Freedom of Information Commissioner James Popple's portfolio will be split between three different agencies. CC BY-SA 3.0 OAIC.

From 1 January 2015, the OAIC – an umbrella body formed in November 2010 to encompass FoI, privacy, information management and other functions – will no longer exist as a unified organisation.

Instead, its functions – and what is currently 63.3 full-time equivalent internal and 15.82 external staff – will be redistributed amongst four other government agencies, with its budget ($10.6m in 2013-14) returned to government coffers.

Privacy law, which surged into the limelight on the back of major changes to the Australian Privacy Act that came into effect in March, will be administered by Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim from a Sydney office, while the OAIC will cease providing advice about information policy.

Advice, guidelines and annual reporting on the FOI Act will be administered by the Attorney-General's Department, while the Administrative Appeals Tribunal will manage FOI merits reviews and the Commonwealth Ombudsman will handle FOI complaints.

Budget Papers show the move will save the government $3.3m in direct funding this financial year, then approximately $10.4m each year thereafter.

Costs of administering the privacy and FOI functions will be shared across the other departments – costing the Attorney-General's Department $500,000 during 2014-15, then $900,000 per year afterwards.

The Australian Human Rights Commission will chip in $2.7m next year and approximately $5.5m each year thereafter, while the Administrative Appeals Tribunal will contribute $300,000 in 2014-15 and $500,000 annually thereafter.

In a post-Budget statement – issued by Pilgrim along with FOI commissioner James Popple and Information Commissioner John McMillan – the agency lauded its "substantial achievements" during its four years in existence, ranging from an audit of the information management policies of 191 Australian Government agencies and the resolution of 1191 applications for Information commissioner review to the closure of 394 FOI complaints and 5303 privacy complaints.

The OAIC had been proactive in investigating potential privacy and FOI issues, launching own-motion investigations into the administration of FOI requests at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and lodging two submissions to the Hawke review of the FOI Act.

It also conducted 91 own-motion investigations and 10 audits into privacy practices; co-ordinated the annual Privacy Awareness Week; provided 113 submissions to inquiries; and actively provided policy advice to agencies and organisations as well as engaging overseas peers through involvement in global privacy fora.

The OAIC's statement noted a steadily increasing workload "in most areas" of between 10 percent and 20 percent, with privacy complaints set to increase by more than 100 percent this year compared with last.

The agency's completion rate was also continuing to improve, from 0.37 cases per day in its first 18 months to 4.7 cases per day at 31 March 2014.

Closure of FOI requests was also increasing – from 0.21 per day during 2010 and 2011 to 1.1 per day this year – as was the closure of privacy complaints, currently 20.1 incidents per day.

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