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Bela Mitchell | 10 Feb 2023 | 4 min read
Software Solutions for Navigating Freedom of Information Obligations
These days, privacy and information security are paramount for any organisation that holds personal data, especially in the public sector. The Freedom of Information Act (also known as Right to Information) is a key piece of legislation that enables the public to request information from public bodies. In order to comply with the Act, organisations need to have robust systems and processes in place to manage information requests. A recent report by the Victorian Ombudsman found that there was a 46% increase in the number of complaints made against organisations relating to their Freedom of Information management processes. Thanks to COVID, the complaints are intrinsically connected to the massive delays caused by a high increase in volume and complexity of the access requests.
An access request is when an individual asks for information held by the public body, and is a fundamental right in any modern, transparent democracy. Despite the recent spike in access requests without the staff increase to meet demand, the expectation by the public is that information is released in a timely manner, with efficient communication and reasonable cost.
UNESCO: “Freedom of Information is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognised by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)."
If your organisation is considering setting up a new system for handling access requests, or if you want to improve an existing system to reduce administrative loads and adjust to the new world of remote working, there are several things you need to take into consideration.
Who will manage the process? How will you track access requests? Which program will you use to fulfil your data reporting obligations?
It might be tempting to just default to Excel and hand the task off to administrative staff, but this can lead to a myriad of complications when it comes to reporting, tracking and delegating the process to new staff if the document isn’t kept up to date or is lost in cyberspace. A manual approach is also extremely labour-intensive and can result in excessive costs to comply with the organisation's information management obligations.
Where should you start?
There are a variety of niche software programs available on the market, but if you’ve never thought of hunting for software to effectively manage your Freedom of Information requests, you should start by considering the following features. The software should include:
- Team workload management and allocation functions
- Intelligent reporting
- Tracking tasks and escalations
- Automated communication
- Flexible workflows to align to your processes
- Tracking of due dates and payments
- Dashboards with prioritised tasks and request status
- Data security and integrity
Ensuring you utilise a comprehensive platform to manage your requests will save your staff time, reduce administrative costs and protect you from a poor audit outcome.
The risk of doing nothing
Organisations who do not have a proper process or system to manage their FOI requests can be exposed to various audit risks including:
Legal penalties: Organisations that do not comply with FOI laws may be subject to fines or penalties.
Difficulty in future FOI requests: Organisations that have a history of non-compliance with FOI laws may find it more difficult to handle future requests if they don’t have a clear way to manage and allocate them.
Loss of trust: Unclear processes and non-compliance with FOI laws may lose the trust of the public, which can have a negative impact on other operations.
Difficulty in defending decisions: Organisations that do not have the ability to track and report on their information releases may have difficulty defending their decisions when they come under audit.
Administrative sanctions: The Information Commissioner may impose administrative sanctions such as issuing a formal warning, or requiring the agency to take particular steps to comply with FOI Act.
Staff burnout: With a steady rise in FOI requests, both in volume and complexity, your staff will find it increasingly difficult to keep track on tasks, escalations, or emails.
Interested in learning how our FOI Management Solution can help you?
Without a Freedom of Information Management Solution, an FOI department will struggle to meet their statutory obligations properly and within the required timeframes. The VendorPanel FOI Management Solution is a case management platform that automates and digitises the FOI process. It can also be used to process media request applications or personal information amendments. To learn more about this product, get in touch with us today.
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