Since the changes in Australian Freedom of Information legislation (see below) took effect on 1 November 2010 the number of FOI requests to Australian federal government agencies has grown overall by 48%. Different government agencies have been recording variant figures, with some agencies having requests up by over 70% while others figures are down or stable.
Prior to the change in legislation, FOI requests were on a continuing downward trend from an already low base rate, which is one reason the changes were brought in.
People were not able to access the information they wanted or needed, due to cost, excessive exemptions which limited access rights and a general culture of non-disclosure by agencies and their FOI staff.
FOI staff traditionally looked at FOI requests not with a view on how to support access and transparency, but to determine how to use the law not to disclose.
The change in legislation reversed this, it instructed FOI staff to assist people seeking information, it made initial requests free and it reduced the exemptions and made them have to be judged against a general public interest test, which determines that “access must generally be given to a conditionally exempt document unless it would be contrary to the public interest”.
The change in legislation seemingly has worked and more people are able to access government information. Other facets of law or government policy changes are also assisting as agencies are also now directed to publish their corporate documents online, put their data sets up on data.gov.au, and move to open copyright licences.
But is information access being made to everyone?
The number of FOI requests by individuals is stable or declining (depending on who you ask). These individuals represent the “information poor” or the average person who generally does not have the knowledge or expertise to be able to know what information is available or to navigate the FOI process.
Where there is a significant rise in FOI usage is by the “information rich” that is people in the news media, legal profession and academic arena who know of the legislative changes and are able to benefit from them.
All large media organisations (TV stations and newspapers) now employ staff whose job it is to produce and manage FOI requests. These staff on behalf of journalists, or it can be by the journalist themselves, regularly send requests to government agencies seeking access to information. There have been multiple instances of this source of information in major news stories of the last few months. This is a good and valid use of FOI disclosure in the public interest. However some FOI staff are unhappy due to the workload as many of the FOI requests are what are known as trawling exercises, whereby large amounts of information are requested because the journalist a) may not know exactly what they are looking for or, b) want to hide exactly what they are looking for within a greater information set.
Another user group is academics who know what information the government holds and now have a chance to access it to support their research.
The other large scale use is by lawyers. The ‘discovery process’ whereby information and documents are gathered for a case, used to be an expensive and long process. Now however, an FOI request to an agency which may have nothing to do with a case except via some regulatory action, or may actually be a party to a dispute can be used to find and organise and deliver large amounts of information. Some FOI staff are unhappy about this as they feel they are doing work for a commercial entity, which that entity should be paying for.
It is possible for government agencies to charge for handling some FOI requests and for providing some information, however this is set at a rate that would not actually cover costs. This low rate was designed so as not to put off potential applications from poorer individuals. In some cases also the fees can be waived outright. There is a growing demand from some FOI staff in Commonwealth agencies for changes to the legislation. They wish to be able to charge enhanced fees to commercial entities such as media and legal organisations. There are also some staff who do not agree with the new policy of disclosure and some government agencies that are also uncomfortable, for example, The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet released in July its FOI Guidance Notes which although seemingly endorsing access, could also be seen as existing to show staff how best not to disclose.
What we are seeing therefore as we come to the end of the first full year of the new legislation is that those who know how to use the system and have prior knowledge are able to better access information.
These people and organisations, whether commercial or not, have every right to use the legislation and receive the services of the agency and their staff (as public servants) to meet their information needs. It would be a serious mistake to change the legislation due to the complaints of some staff who are being asked to work harder (it would be better to instruct agencies to employ more staff).
The major problem therefore is not that some people or organisations are using the system too liberally, but that information poor individuals are not using the system enough.
It is to be hoped that in the next year that the Australian Information Commissioner takes upon itself as a priority the education and promotion of the pathways to government information.
It is also hoped that the Commissioner ignores the attempts to to try to shut down the access we now grant, and supports expanding FOI services.
Freedom of Information Act
(1) The objects of this Act are to give the Australian community access to information held by the Government of the Commonwealth or the Government of Norfolk Island, by:
(a) requiring agencies to publish the information; and
(b) providing for a right of access to documents.
(2) The Parliament intends, by these objects, to promote Australia’s representative democracy by contributing towards the following:
(a) increasing public participation in Government processes, with a view to promoting better‑informed decision‑making;
(b) increasing scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of the Government’s activities.
(3) The Parliament also intends, by these objects, to increase recognition that information held by the Government is to be managed for public purposes, and is a national resource.
(4) The Parliament also intends that functions and powers given by this Act are to be performed and exercised, as far as possible, to facilitate and promote public access to information, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost.
FoI charges are going to be reviewed, with a view presumably to cut costs and levy fees on applicants: http://www.ministerhomeaffairs.gov.au/www/ministers/oconnor.nsf/Page/MediaReleases_2011_FourthQuarter_7October2011-FOIchargesregimetobereviewed
Hopefully it will be recognised that although transparency may cost more to manage, it is a cost that the information holders should undertake, and not information seekers.
Today is the last day of work at the National Library for Kristy Fox an esteemed contributor to this blog. Kristy is moving to Melbourne to work at Ebook Library, a vendor providing ebooks to academic, research, government and corporate libraries. See their brochure.
Of the original founders of this blog who are still contributing, there is now only one still working at the National Library. This shows a number of things:
- The National Library continues to lose its skilled library professionals, due to its management practices and lack of career advancement opportunities
- Professional librarians continue to move outside of traditional library roles seeking improved opportunities and a chance to broaden their skills
- The National Library continues to lead in big technology items like Trove, but its traditional services including reference, special collections, research, publishing, collection development, description and classification as well as its online services are more comparable to those of a small country museum than a national library
We do hope that the National Library finds its way, in the mean time, its former librarians wherever they work, will continue to better promote the core aims of librarianship elsewhere.
If you want to discuss ebook licensing, Kristy can be contacted at: email@example.com
The Information Publication Scheme came into force on May 1 this year, its intention was to: “form the basis for a more open and transparent culture across government with agencies encouraged to take a proactive approach to publishing the information they hold, and to consider what they should be publishing over and above what they are obliged to publish.”
The scheme applies to all Australian federal government agencies, and most agencies have complied.
The three compliance issues are to publish details of agencies schemes on their websites, have a IPS logo link from the front page of their website to the scheme, and to begin to publish corporate documents not previously published.
Below is a chart that shows how the major Canberra based information, collecting or cultural agencies have done so far in compliance. While we know cultural agencies have been very badly affected by cost cutting, the apparent lack of compliance with government mandated transparency and openness is worrying.
This blog has a few times lambasted publishers for closing bookshops, ripping off readers and authors, attacking libraries, opposing fair use legislation, increasing copyright restrictions, instituting anti-consumer DRM, and unfair regional licencing. Now with the revelations from News Corp (Murdoch’s company) we can now add to their credit that they are proven liars and criminals. For proof see their recent admission to extensive use of phone hacking to gather stories on their newspapers. Murdoch’s empire had managed to cover up most of their wrong doing by bribing the police, and thus escaped real scrutiny for a number of years, but happily this has changed and now they are going to have to pay dearly. It is too much to hope that this will be the end of Murdoch and his family, but it would be a boon for libraries if it were.
Since the rise in popularity of this blog, there have been occasions where things have gotten a little out of hand.
Therefore we are now (reluctantly) having to institute these etiquette guidelines (stolen from a sci-fi convention)
1. Do not ask for hugs or kisses.
Not only is this an invasion of bloggers personal space but it’s not fair if you get one and everyone else misses out. It is simply too draining for the bloggers to give them to everyone. Please do not think, “Oh it won’t hurt if I just ask, its only one person…” There are no exceptions for this rule. Be considerate!
2. No inappropriate touching of the bloggers whatsoever
e.g. grabbing them on the bottom etc. This is unacceptable on many levels and once again, anyone caught doing so will be removed.
3. Do not ask self-centred questions
Ask questions that everyone (including the blogger!) will find enjoyable, interesting and entertaining. Asking for hugs, telling stars we love them, giving gifts and getting into long personal stories etc is not acceptable in these kinds of blogs. It is, in fact, quite self-centered when you are in essence “representing” all of fandom to a blogger.
4. Please refrain from asking the bloggers questions about the following:
Sex, finances, politics, personal religious beliefs or personal relationships. These are very touchy and personal subjects and can make the bloggers uncomfortable. Also, should you ask a question and the blogger seems uncomfortable about it, or dodges the question, then please leave it alone. They do not have to discuss anything that they do not wish to.
5. Please do not ask the bloggers to remove their shirts or any other item of clothing. We know they are very pretty and look good shirtless but this is inappropriate.
6. Try to keep the questions as short and as clear as possible and speak clearly so as to not confuse the bloggers. Make sure that the question you ask is about something that everyone will enjoy hearing about. Make sure you don’t repeat questions. Think of something else or let someone else have a turn.
7. Please do not ask the bloggers for autographs and photographs outside the official autograph and photographs sessions as this puts them in a difficult position. They probably just want to have lunch, a chat or a rest without ‘working’.
No bids have thus far arrived for the Library Lovers Day auction – see earlier post.
Apparently no-one is interested in paying >$10,000 to dine with a librarian – not even for the sake of charity.
It is a sick sick society we live in.
The DBCDE has produced a help button that you can download to your computer/device. The button is mainly aimed at children and young people who feel under threat online, but it could be useful for everyone as a quick means of reporting illegal content.
It seems to be a variation on the UK’s ‘panic button’ developed by facebook and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
When a user double-clicks on the downloaded cybersafety help button while connected to the internet, it will open the cybersafety help and advice page to provide assistance to:
- talk to a counsellor about cyberbullying or anything else that is worrying or upsetting them
- report cyberbullying, inappropriate or offensive online material, scams and fraud, or unwanted contact
- learn how to stay safe online with tips and information on a range of cybersafety issues
It is to be commended that the government is putting tools into people’s hands to help them counter online threats and abuse. It is a shame that the previous government’s home filter system, which allowed users to choose to filter if they wanted is no longer supported. Giving people the choice and the tools to protect themsleves is in theory always a far better approach than direct blanket censorship.
I went to a talk last night by Bethany Nowviskie called Expressive Archives. It was a really great talk – basically looking at some of the cool things happening between the web and the humanities. She is the director of the Scholars Lab at the University of Virginia. She mentioned a great web publishing platform they built called OMEKA. I don’t know if you have heard of it but it sounded really exciting to me. It is built for small collection institutions to display their digitised material. It is open source and available for download from the website. And it also has a lot of great plug-ins… which make it really versatile. One of the coolest features is its ability to drag material in using persistent identifiers making it very straightforward for collection institutions like local libraries, historical societies and special interest groups.
Anyway – have a look at OMEKA and see what you think.
Here is a link to Bethany’s blog well worth a read!
Below is a letter to the Secretary of State responsible for public libraries in the UK. Over the last year 1000 librarian positions have disappeared, and there is an expectation that there are to be 6000 more job losses. Hundreds of libraries are also closing or due to close, and where they remain open they will have restricted hours and be run by volunteers.
If you wish to express your solidarity with our colleagues struggling to maintain a decent library service in the UK, please add your name (or comments) to this letter in the comments area.
Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP
Secretary of State
Department of Culture Media & Sport
2-4 Cockspur Street
London SW1Y 5DH
Dear Secretary of State
We the undersigned Australian librarians, library workers and supporters write to protest the current and planned mass closures of public libraries across the United Kingdom and to request that you use your powers under the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act to “secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act”
Free public libraries as we know them began in the UK with the Public Libraries Act of 1850. Since that time British public libraries have been a model to be copied overseas and fundamental to the success and development of British society.
It is imperative now with the current recession that British libraries continue to exist to provide information services to help rebuild the economy, help people to learn new skills and to provide information and support for the unemployed.
The sacking of thousands of library staff and the closure of hundreds of public libraries cannot be justified at this time of real need and must not be allowed to continue. For without libraries Britain cannot continue to claim to be a truly civilised or developed nation.
The Library of Congress has come under strong attack for blocking the Wikileaks website on its computer systems, including those computers for use by patrons in the public reading rooms. This is in line with a directive to all US federal agencies to prevent unauthorized disclosures of classified documents – even if they have already been disclosed in an unauthorised way.
Below is just one comment from a respected US Librarian
Comment #124.Sarah Houghton-Jan
December 6, 2010 at 7:53 pm
This action is an affront to all librarians everywhere. It is a violation of the First Amendment and a violation of the American Library Association’s Bill of Rights. Moreover, it is a violation of the professional ethics of librarians to always provide access to all information. The Librarian of Congress should be ashamed of these actions, reverse them immediately, and be censured by the American Library Association.
The Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG) also:
condemns in the strongest possible terms the blocking of Wikileaks by the Library of Congress and rejects on all grounds their arguments in defense of this move.
In Australia, where the editor-in-chief of Wikileaks Julian Assange holds citizenship, there has been much public (as opposed to government) support for the Wikileaks disclosures and for Assange (see http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/41914.html).
It is still the case that Wikileaks website is not being blocked by any agency here in Australia and nor is it currently on the ACMA blacklist (see http://www.zdnet.com.au/wikileaks-removed-from-acma-blacklist-339307604.htm)
How any agency, library or librarian in Australia would handle the situation that the Library of Congress is currently in, if the leaks were from Australian diplomatic cables we don’t know. Which is probably just as well.
Is it only me who noticed that Answer 6 of the Labor Party policy response to ALIA released today, was actually first written by the Australian School Library Association at: http://www2.curriculum.edu.au/scis/connections/electronic_resources_australia__school_libraries.html
Below is the ALP response, see if you can see the similarities
6. Will your party provide funding for the purchase of quality digital content for all Australians through the Electronic Resources Australia project?
Electronic Resources Australia (ERA) is a service to all libraries in Australia so that all Australians may have access to more databases and electronic information resources.
ERA started in 2007 and by 2009 there were 646 schools across Australia participating, as well as public schools and special libraries, tertiary institutions and state libraries. The subscription amount for each electrical resource database is determined by the number of subscribers/libraries who participate each year.
Approximately 7,000,000 Australians are served by libraries that subscribe to resources through ERA.
In 2009 the ERA, product panel was expanded from 9 to 25 products. There were also changes to the subscription periods. Libraries now have the ability to subscribe for a calendar year, which allows schools to work more easily within their budget periods.
ERA is, and will continue to be, the best value for money subscription service to the selected databases and any further databases that may be included in the future. While the poll is the mechanism to determine the cost of each data bases for the following year, it is possible to subscribe through the ERA without having participated in the poll. The greater the participation in each polling period – which usually opens in March and closes in April of each year – the greater the possibility of reduction of subscriptions.
“politicians who are not online should question their relevancy to the Australian public” – Karim Temsamani (Google Australia) quoted here
The 2001, 2004 and 2007 Australian federal elections were hailed in different ways as making Internet history. The 2001 election saw the widespread first use of personal websites by candidates and the first attacking mini-sites produced by the major parties. The 2004 election saw the first widespread usage of sites such as MySpace, video and blogs. In 2007 building on the lessons of 2004, there was much wider use of all social networking platforms and online channels and sites such as Kevin07 that were tailored to interact with the voting public.
In 2010, the current election seems to show no progress in online campaigning and in some cases has even moved backwards. Yes, there are many websites, blogs, facebook presences, twitter accounts and video channels, but they are invariably not social or interactive. The minor parties, in particular The Australian Greens (notably Andrew Bartlett and Scott Ludlam) have used social media, online advertising and online communication to good effect. But the major parties are seemingly only using online media as a vehicle to push content streams.
The facebook pages, created for the parties and leading candidates offer little real engagement with their ‘like’ supporters by the principal actors, but mainly just provide a drip feed of policy announcements and media releases. The comments areas appear to be moderately badly, if at all, and are beset by trolls from either side of politics who hijack any useful conversation.
In 2007, the then opposition Labor party created Kevin07 as a single access point to rally , communicate and disseminate information with voters, such was the sites success that it remains a known entity long after its demise. The opposition in this election is Tony Abbott, but there is no comparable Tony10. Tony Abbott’s own website remains focussed on his constituency and so seemingly badly have the Liberals judged SEO that the Liberal Party website does not even come up in the first page of results when Googling his name. The Labor party have though taken the opportunity to sponsor a link to an attack website. (see image below)
The Labor party has created many campaign videos and mini-sites as well as a Phoney_Tony twitter presence and Labor Connect (a social networking website). They have also created highly moderated blogs that generally have media releases as posts.
The (YouTube) video channels are being used by both parties to project election advertisements to the television media, so that they may be picked up and distributed for free as news content. The television, and in particular the television news cycle, for the major parties is apparently still king, and the 70+ % of online users are being somewhat ignored.
This is very much not an Internet election, at least on the part of the major parties. Maybe it is because the policies that the parties have that are directly relevant to the issues of Internet users are not central to their platforms. There are 2 major issues of relevance, the National Broadband Network and ISP filtering and storage of user information. Neither of these issues has been debated by the parties during the election in any substantial way.
Another issue that may be restricting Internet usage may be lack of money as mentioned in this SMH article. However lack of money would normally indicate a reduced TV budget and an increased online strategy, which we aren’t seeing.
But let us wait and see how the online election develops in the next couple of weeks.
(Note. no parties were endorsed in the production of this blog post)
And so Australia goes to the polls.
There will be many issues which will dictate which way you vote. This post is certainly not going to give advice on how to vote, but it is asking you to think about libraries as an issue.
Libraries are a vital public service that almost never get mentioned in federal election commitments or party manifestos. And having checked today the policy sections of the two major parties websites, neither of them have a single mention of libraries. The Greens briefly mention libraries at: http://greens.org.au/node/760.
(to remain impartial the policy webpages of the other parties will be checked ongoing for library related mentions and added if found)
As Librarians we have an agenda that it is beholden upon us to raise with all political parties and candidates.
Public libraries are predominately funded at a state or territory level and so invariably when federal elections are called, federal politicians do not address library issues.
But libraries were at the core of the previous federal administrations initiatives such as:
- Early childhood education
- Literacy initiatives
- Encouraging the digital economy and digital citizenship
- Increasing social inclusion
- The National Broadband Network
It is true that a large number of additional school libraries and a very small number of public libraries were built by the stimulus package. However, public libraries were not funded as part of any of these initiatives. If these policies are again to be raised we need to ask that libraries be funded to work with federal government.
We have our own issues too that need addressing such as:
Digitisation – there are vast amounts of library and community held records, publications and images that need to be digitised both for access and preservation.
Digital Preservation - digitised and especially born digital material is being created by the community in vast amounts. These digital objects need to be safely preserved. The lead institutions for digital preservation, The National Library, The National Film and Sound Archive and The National Archives of Australia need to be supported to carry out this work.
Public Libraries – state and territory library funding is uneven and subject to the vagaries of economies and budgets that other public services are not. In a time of recession it is not expected that, for example, a school should lose staff and cut its opening hours, but it seen as acceptable to happen to a public library. Public libraries should be subject to a nationwide standard of funding, hours and staffing. Half of the Australian population use libraries and they should not have their services curtailed by a short-sighted local government.
Mandatory filtering – Librarians oppose censorship for good reasons, and have set forth good policy alternatives, which should be addressed.
You will probably have some other ideas for how government should support libraries. So, librarians engage with your local candidates and ask them, what are you offering to libraries? And don’t let them tell you it is not a federal matter.
An additional $1 million will be provided for digital playback devices and improved access to digital content in public libraries around the country to increase the accessibility of print material, such as books and newspapers, for people with vision and physical impairments and learning disabilities that have difficulty reading traditional printed materials.