READ OUR FOI GUIDE BELOW FROM PEOPLE WHO DO IT REGULARLY
Northern Territory refusing one in four FOI requests – seven times Victoria’s rate – because we, the NT public let them get away with it!
NT’s refusal rate above 20% for four years running, which experts attribute to deeper problems
The Northern Territory is by far the most likely jurisdiction to block FOI requests.
The Northern Territory government is refusing one in four freedom-of-information requests – a rate seven times higher than Victoria’s and eight times higher than Western Australia’s.
An analysis of state and territory FOI data shows the Northern Territory is by far the most likely jurisdiction to block requests for government documents. Last financial year, the NT government granted just 292 of the 900 FOI requests it finalised, and partially granted another 298. Read the report here:
It refused 246 FOI requests, or 27%. Victoria refused 3.89% and Western Australia 3.2%. It is also significantly higher than the commonwealth’s refusal rate of 17%, which is itself a record high. Data for other jurisdictions in 2017-18 is not yet available.
The year prior, the NT had by far the highest refusal rate (28%) of any jurisdiction. The next closest was Queensland at 20%. The commonwealth refused 10% of FOI requests in the same year.
Complaints about under resourced FOI system spike by 72% in a single year
The total volume of FOI requests received in the NT is low compared with the rest of the country, making the refusal rate more susceptible to change than larger jurisdictions. There can be legitimate reasons for refusing an FOI request, including that the documents are legally exempt or do not exist, or that the application itself is deficient.
But the NT’s refusal rate has now been above 20% for four years running, and experts believe there are deeper problems inhibiting the release of information.
Ken Parish, an NT-based legal academic at Charles Darwin University, said there was no obvious reason for the high refusal rate, given the territory’s FOI legislation is no more restrictive than other jurisdictions.
Parish believes the result may partly be a cultural problem within the NT public service. He also believes the NT’s status as the last Australian jurisdiction to introduce FOI may also have played a role.
Parish said the territory had a huge public-sector workforce, relative to other states and territories. The workforce was also top-heavy, he said, with almost half the workforce being made up of managerial or administrative staff.
“I hypothesise that what we’ve got therefore is a very large public service culture.” He said the public service was dominated by managers who were “very much politicised because of the senior executive service and a large and still-growing set of ministerial advisers”.
“It may well be that the rate of non-response to FOI requests is in one sense a part of that,” he said.
The territory’s large public-sector workforce also ought to mean refusing FOI requests on practical grounds was less likely, he said.
The Gunner government is deliberately quiet on FOI reform. Why is that? Something to hide Michael?
A FOI guide (by people who file FOI requests)
Top tips on how to Freedom of Information requests from people who actually file FOI requests.
- Check what you’re looking for is not already out there
- Know who you are sending to
- Keep it focused, if it’s too broad they’ll reject it
- Speak their language
- Be prepared to be patient as NT GOV is an expert at stalling the FOI process so you get bored and give up.
The internet is filled with guides on how to file a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. The Global Investigative Journalism Network has an excellent list of FOI resources available in many countries across every continent. We recommend you take a look at it, many of the FOI guides CARD: Fight Back! luvs are in that repository:
NT GOV also has an FOI page which you can read for help if you prefer:
We thought we should share some of the challenges and lessons so far.
So, first things first… What’s a FOI and why should you be filing one?
A Freedom of Information – aka FOI – request is a formal request you make to a public body (your Local Council, the Police, a Government Agency…) in order to access information that should be accessible to the public or is your personal information. Personal Information is any information a public sector organisation holds from which a person’s identity is apparent or is reasonably able to be ascertained. For example if they’ve written emails or letters about you, your personnel file, disciplinary complaints, gossip between your principal and Education Director etc. Or you may be trying to obtain a contract they have signed or simply obtain an answer to a question you have or even request other documents such as a documents relating to how close friend and campaign volunteer for Minister Eva Lawler, Hylton Hayes, got his no tender juicy NT GOV contract days after setting up a ‘consultancy firm’ in his own name:
The more people file FOI requests and publish the information they get, the better informed we are as a society and the easier it is to demand changes. You can publish them here on CARD: Fight Back! or make your own blog to publish them: https://foifordummies.wordpress.com/
Once documents are released under FOI they are public knowledge. There is no one to stop you publishing them anywhere you like.
So here are our lessons learned:
1) Check what you’re looking for is not already out there
Before you spend time filling out an FOI form, spend time doing research to make sure what you are looking for is not already publicly available. Your government might have a website where they publish the contracts they sign with companies or individuals like Hylton Hayes for example.
Your first step could be checking websites like https://www.righttoknow.org.au/ A website that lets you file FOI requests and makes the results you get available to the public. This way you can check if what you are about to ask has been asked before.
2) Familiarise yourself with the FOI framework in Australia
You do not need to be a lawyer to file a FOI request. In fact, Freedom of Information laws were passed with journalists and citizens in mind. However, it helps to know the basics about the freedom of information law: how long can the government body take to answer your request, what information are they entitled to refuse and on what grounds etc. The Information Act is here:
This is helpful because, if a public body is not giving you the information you have been asking for, you need to know if their refusal can be justified or not.
If it’s not, you often have the right to ask them to re-consider and then appeal against the decision to the Information Commissioner’s Office: https://infocomm.nt.gov.au/freedom-of-information/overview
3) Format matters
You can write a letter if you prefer as a way to request information through FOI. Or you can just fill out the normal NT GOV form.
There are not necessarily clear rules on formatting or what your letter should look like, and if you rely on a platform like https://www.righttoknow.org.au/ the formatting will be done for you. However, we have found that formatting can help, especially if you are going to file a complaint eventually. Clearly flag the case number if you are replying following an initial response they gave you and keep a record of the letters you sent. Write down your contact details, including your address, so they know how to respond.
An FOI application must:
- be in writing
- give your name and address
- describe in sufficient detail the information that you want
- include payment or a receipt for the application fee (if applicable)
You must also provide proof of your identity before your application can be accepted.
Please give as much detail as possible about the information you are seeking when you make your FOI application as this can help to reduce the costs to process it.
4) Know who you are sending to
When you are asking for information make sure the government body you are writing to is the one that has the information you are after. Do not mix up, for example, your local government and your local police forces, although, they should be able to point you in the direction of who might have it. Once you are sure what the body you need the information from is, check their website to see if they have a specific email address for FOI requests. If they do not, give them a ring or email their general email address to find out who you should be sending the FOI request to.
5) Keep it focused
This is the most important advice we would like to give, do not ask for too many things at the same time. Here is what may happen if you do. Let’s say you ask the NT Department of unEducation for A, B, C, and D and that they have 30 days to respond. They might wait 30 days to simply reply with a letter saying “sorry we cannot reply to D” because the request was too long and would require the authority to exceed the designated by law time to respond. They can reply to A, B, C but you now have to reply to their letter to say “please send me your response to A, B and C” and potentially wait another 30 days before you get the answer you were after. By then you would have wasted a few months to get what you were after. We have been there, and it sucks. So, while you can (and should) ask for more than one question at a time, think carefully about what the information you really want is and consider keeping the rest for a separate FOI request or a follow-up question after.
Remember too that you can FOI specific government employees’ email accounts if you think there might be some behind the scenes dirt being shared about you. Find out their email address then write something as simple as: I would like all emails which mention me by name or by my initials in all of the email addresses used by and connected to ‘Name Of Government Employee’. Because they often have more than one email government email address, with a “1” or “2” at the end of their name.
6) There is more than just answers to your questions
Remember you can ask questions (e.g. “How does the Department of Workers and Pensions identify the cases that should be investigated for fraud?”) but you can also ask for documents (e.g “Please provide a copy of any data sharing agreements or similar such agreements with recently ex-CE of NT Department of unEducation Vicki Baylis and her new Government Consultancy firm”):
Remember Vicki told everyone she was retiring at the end of February? Apart from being the fishiest time to retire in the history of retirements, it was BULLSHIT of course, exactly what we’ve come to expect from our highly paid NT GOV executives:
While answers to questions will usually be succinct, documents will often give you more to reflect on and potentially give you new and unexpected lead for your investigation…..
7) Speak their language
A very common way for your request to be rejected is if the government body does not understand what you are asking for. It is not necessarily unwillingness from their part, it may simply be that they are using different terms internally than the ones you are using. Or it may be that they are just playing dumb to stall you. This is particularly true when it comes to requests related to technology. The first thing you should do is to provide a definition of what you are asking for (e.g. If you FOI the NT Police, instead of using the term “IMSI catchers” use: “devices that fake mobile towers to collect mobile phone information in their vicinity, often referred to as IMSI catchers”).
Another way to address this is to spend time reading the documents they have previously released, so you can identify the terms they use and even point to them in your request (e.g. “as mentioned in your annual report”). You can also consider making an initial FOI request asking for documents like minutes of meetings to find out how they may be referring to what you are investigating. Once you have obtained those documents, they are considered public and you can refer to them in your future communications (e.g “as per the minutes of the meeting you held on May 23rd 2020, please give me a copy of the contract referred to by person X”).
One last thing on language: keep it simple. Separate each question clearly, use very simple and explicit language.
8) If at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again… But don’t become vexatious.
If you get the answer to your question following your initial letter, congratulations and consider yourself very lucky. Often though, you might get a response asking you to further clarify your questions or to limit your request (more on that below). Don’t give up. Follow up by replying and remember you can file more than one letter or application although if you ask the same government body for the same thing over and over again they might try to label you as “vexatious” and not reply. If this happens you can contact the Information Commissioner’s Office for help:
9) They may have a duty to tell you how to refine your request, take advantage of it.
Depending on the jurisdiction you are in, governments may have an obligation to tell you how to refine the application. So if you ask for example for “all emails between Amazon and the Department of Health” and they tell you they cannot give that to you because it would take them too much time (fair enough), then you can request from them that they make suggestions as to how you could limit your request to make it manageable for them while still allowing you to get at least part of what you want. They may then say: “We could answer if you asked us for all emails between Amazon and the Department of Health over a one-month period.” Remember, they will not necessarily “volunteer” that information and tell you immediately how you should refine your request but it is worth asking and if they have the legal obligation to tell you and they refuse to do it, you have the right to file a complaint to the relevant regulator.
10) Be prepared to wait, don’t give up
Filing an FOI request is not difficult, nor in and of itself particularly time consuming, but it does take a long time before you get what you are after. Investigations based on FOI requests sometimes take years of waiting. Governments may usually extend the time they have to respond for various reasons, and they will often use that time. Sometimes you will need to start from scratch with a new FOI request.
But having said all of this, take note of the exact day you filed the request and do not hesitate to complain if they do not reply in the time frame allocated to them.
NT GOV only get away with headlines like this: “Northern Territory refusing one in four FOI requests – seven times Victoria’s rate” because we let them.
Fight Back! Accountability warriors. Make them work for their salary.
File heaps of FOI requests, then internal reviews, then external reviews.
They are PUBLIC SERVANTS. Not MASTERS OF THE PUBLIC like they think they are.
ps: for all those who have asked about ex-NT GOV Whistle-blower Ferg Ferguson. He has been attacked again by NT GOV and their friends in high places.
Watch this space while NT GOV continue to search CARD: Fight Back! during work hours. Must be another slow day at the office with nothing better to do. Click on the image to see it bigger size:
The poor guy should write a book!