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.
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 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.
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?
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.
Freedom of Information Section
Parliamentary and Executive Coordination Branch | Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio
E: [email address]
Thank you for your email; I look forward to a response from the Department.