Senators concerned OAIC will remain under-resourced despite hiring 31 staff

The staff will be administering the Commonwealth mandates, rather than helping with its existing responsibilities.

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As part of the 2019-20 federal Budget handed down last week, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) received AU$25.1 million in additional resourcing over the next three years.

The Budget stated the funding was for the OAIC to "facilitate timely responses to privacy complaints and support strengthened enforcement action in relation to social media and other online platforms that breach privacy regulations".

During Senate Estimates on Tuesday, Information and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk detailed that the funding boost would see her organisation be free to hire 31 more staff, which would boost its current head count to 124.

Despite previous Estimates rounds highlighting concerns that the OAIC was under-resourced to handle its current remit, Falk said on Tuesday the new staff would be focused on administering new government initiatives rather than helping with its existing mandates -- or clearing the OAIC's backlog.

The funding, according to Falk, would not only help the OAIC deliver the new work, but it would also "enhance the office's ability to prevent, detect, deter, and remedy interferences with privacy".

"It's also intended there will be an enforceable code to introduce additional safeguards across social media and online platforms that trade in personal information and the code will require greater transparency about data-sharing and requirements for the consent for collection, use, and disclosure of personal information and this will incorporate stronger protections for children and other vulnerable Australians in the online environment," she said.

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"Accordingly, the OAIC will be focused on working collaboratively and constructively with all parties to enhance privacy protections, both online and offline, and to give Australians greater control over their personal information."

Falk said the staffing boost takes into account the new measure, but also the Consumer Data Right (CDR), which will soon become a new responsibility for the OAIC.

The OAIC is charged with a handful of functions covering privacy, freedom of information (FOI), and information policy.

Its responsibilities include conducting investigations; reviewing decisions made under the FOI Act; handling complaints; monitoring agency administration; and providing advice to the public, government agencies, and businesses. A little over a year ago it had its workload upped once more and was given the responsibility of handling Australia's Notifiable Data Breaches (NDB) Scheme.

During Senate Estimates in February, Falk revealed the NDB was a "significant increase in workload", which added to the long wait times its FOI function was already experiencing.

Less than two months ago there was 784 FOI Information Commissioner (IC) reviews on hand and 18 FOI matters that had been waiting 11 months to be assigned a case officer.

Falk said on Tuesday the oldest FOI matter waiting allocation was submitted 11.9 months ago.

When asked if the Budget funding was going to assist in FOIs getting resolved in a more timely matter, Falk said that her office received 31 less FOIs last quarter than in the previous one, allowing staff to play catch-up.

"The situation remains much as it was in February," she said, eventually adding there was "no specific funding for FOI".

The OAIC this week has consultancy firm Synergy Group sitting with staff, Deputy Commissioner to the OAIC Elizabeth Hampton told Senators continuing questions regarding a lack of resources within the office.

"[Synergy is] working through a new model with us and spending a lot of time with our team over the course of this week to unpack and unpick each of the processes that are involved in our key functions to see if there's any repetition -- if there's anything else to see if we can streamline those processes," Hampton said. "I expect a report back on Friday ... it's really quite intensive."

Currently, Falk conducts the role of what was previously spread out over three commissioners: Privacy, information, and FOI. Falk is officially Information and Privacy Commissioner until August 2021.

With an emphasis on additional resourcing, Senator Rex Patrick took the opportunity to comment that he is hopeful Labor would restore this function to three separate commissioners as an election commitment.

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