Conduct of DIBP FOI Section officers in handling of Right to Know FOI requests

Vera Lystich made this Freedom of Information request to Department of Home Affairs

Response to this request is long overdue. By law, under all circumstances, Department of Home Affairs should have responded by now (details). You can complain by requesting an internal review.

From: Vera Lystich

Delivered

Good evening,

I am writing to provide some feedback on the conduct of officers in the Department's FOI Section in relation to their handling of FOI requests made by users of the Right to Know (RtK) website.

Please note that this email is not a FOI request in itself, and I note for the record that I have never made a request to DIBP, so have an objective perspective on this issue.

I have reviewed correspondence between users of the RtK website and members of your staff, including Janelle Raineri, Shannon Bevan, Marianne Nolte-Crimp, Angela O'Neil and Linda Rossiter.

Examples of conduct in question

While Ms Raineri, Ms Bevan and Ms Nolte-Crimp appear to have been very courteous and efficient in their responses to FOI requests made via the RtK website, correspondence from Ms O'Neil and Ms Rossiter has been, in my opinion, abrupt and obstructive.

For example, I direct your attention to request FA 14/04/00800. In this request, Mr Ben Fairless had requested access to an email written by Ms O'Neil. The Authorised Decision Maker allocated to this case was Ms O'Neil herself, who proceeded to compose a ten-page response affirming her decision to impose a $14 processing charge on this request.

The above example demonstrates a clear conflict of interest, and I would imagine that Ms O'Neil could not have possibly objectively assessed Mr Fairless's application in this instance.

Further, in relation to request FA 14/04/00806, on 24 June 2014, Mr Fairless sent a polite clarifying email confirming whether the review officer was in a more senior position than the original decision maker. Ms Rossiter's response was abrupt and obstructive, with the specific response that, "There will be no further correspondence with you on this matter...".

Although I accept that correspondence from some users of the RtK website has been similarly abrupt at times, it is my contention that many FOI requests from these users have been initially cordial, with the users becoming frustrated as their applications progress.

I also note that officers of the FOI Section, including Ms O'Neil, had previously sought to frustrate the request process for RtK applicants further by seeking to declare the email addresses of these applicants as invalid for the purposes of FOI applications, despite repeated advice to the contrary.

Objectives of the FOI Act and the RtK website

From Ms O'Neil's and Ms Rossiter's correspondence, and subsequent internal emails on the subject of the RtK website, it appears FOI Section officers may view the RtK website, or certain RtK applicants, as vexatious and a detraction from their work.

However, the roles of the RtK website and the DIBP FOI Section are very much interrelated; specifically, to further the objectives of the Freedom of Information Act.

RtK users have not encountered similar issues with FOI officers in other APS agencies. I am concerned that these examples may be reflective of a wider cultural issue within DIBP's FOI Section.

Regardless of the views of FOI Section officers on the RtK website, however, I would remind Ms O'Neil and Ms Rossiter that it is their obligation under the APS Code of Conduct to "treat everyone with respect and courtesy." It is my opinion that, in relation to these officers' correspondence with users of the RtK website, they have failed to do this.

Desired response

It is concerning that the Department's internal review process has previously failed, given one of Mr Fairless's applications was reviewed by an officer junior to the original decision maker.

I have reviewed the Department's organisational chart and have been unable to locate the position of Director of FOI & Privacy Policy. Therefore, I would request that my feedback be passed on to Ms Rossiter's superior.

I have not, and will not, contact the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in relation to this feedback, as I am not making any specific complaint about the merits of any particular FOI application; rather, I am expressing concerns about the conduct of DIBP personnel.

I would appreciate a detailed response to my concerns, as well as an outline of actions taken to assist DIBP's FOI Section to develop a positive transparency culture with the best interests of the Australian public at heart.

Yours faithfully,

Vera Lystich

Link to this

From: Vera Lystich

Delivered

Dear Department of Immigration and Border Protection,

I have not yet received a response to my email of 15 January

Can you please advise if my email has been passed on to the appropriate person, and a timeframe in which I might expect a response?

Yours faithfully,

Vera Lystich

Link to this

From: FOI

UNCLASSIFIED

Good afternoon Ms Lystich,

Thank you for your email.

I can confirm that your feedback has been forwarded to the appropriate officer to respond and a response will be made in due course.

Kind regards

Penelope Robb
FOI Helpdesk
Freedom of Information Section
Parliamentary and Executive Coordination Branch | Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio
E: [email address]

show quoted sections

Link to this

From: Vera Lystich

Delivered

Dear Penelope,

Thank you for your email; I look forward to a response from the Department.

Yours sincerely,

Vera Lystich

Link to this

Locutus Sum left an annotation ()

I have written already today about how the Right to Know website is used. This annotation is the second.

Ms Lystich mentions the purpose of the Right to Know website but the mention is actually ironic. The purpose of the Right to Know website is facilitate a person to make requests under the Freedom of Information Act. It is not a place to make a complaint under the Act. It is not a place to carry on a casual conversation with a Department about a user's private views on the Department and then to publish the views and conversation. A person can make a blog like that from Mr Timmins (http://foi-privacy.blogspot.com/) if she wants a publishing place.

The opinions and views of a user about how a department behaves must be political. I might agree with some of the observations of Ms Lystich but it is not relevant. It does not help to say "... I note for the record that I have never made a request to DIBP, so have an objective perspective on this issue". The conclusion "... so [I] have an objective perspective on the issue ..." unfortunately does not follow from the premise.

Link to this

Locutus Sum left an annotation ()

I accidentally omitted something from my annotation.

Ms Lystich said in her email from 15 Jan, "this email is not a FOI request". That is correct. The Department cannot deal with it under the Act because the Act does not provide a mechanism to deal with it.

Because the email is not a valid request under the Act, the Department is also not bound with the Act to provide any response at all. To give no response would be unhelpful. Also it would look discourteous but to pretend that it is a request under the Act is not sensible. An intelligent response from the department would say, "We acknowledge receipt of your email. If you wish the Department to respond, please provide a postal address to which we can write."

From the view of an individual who wants to know more about the opinion of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, I also have an enthusiasm to see the reply, if there is a reply. But it does not make for a good use of the Right to Know website which is aligned completely to make requests, receive responses to requests, classify responses to requests, request reviews, osv.

Link to this

Vera Lystich left an annotation ()

Locutus,
Noted.
Regards
Vera

Link to this

Things to do with this request

Anyone:
Department of Home Affairs only: