Q&A with Elizabeth Tydd on your Right to Know #RTK2017 September 28, 2017

Today is Right to Know Day and State Archives and Records NSW is proud to be a Right to Know 2017 Champion!

To celebrate Right to Know Week 2017 we interviewed Elizabeth Tydd to discuss this year’s theme: ‘Right to Information: Open and accountable government and the media’s role.’

Ms Tydd is the NSW Information Commissioner and CEO of the Information and Privacy Commission (IPC). In this role Ms Tydd promotes public awareness and understanding of the right to access government information in NSW, and provides information, support, advice, assistance and training to agencies and the general public.

You can access the podcast of the interview here and below is a transcript of our interview.

1. Government transparency strengthens community participation and our democracy. What are the practical benefits of proactively releasing information and inviting and managing community consultation on projects?

There is a highly compelling case for public participation, particularly in relation to the development of government service delivery options and policies and there’s a multitude of tools, but no one tool or no one size fits all.

We need to manage community participation very well and if we do so in combination with the release of government information, we are able to harness ideas, knowledge, wisdom and skills of the citizens and also non-government sectors that enable us to better develop and implement effective government policies and services that are more responsive to the needs of citizens.

So if we are to combine the release of government information, we therefore are able to uphold the four fundamental principles of open government and they are:

  1. transparency – how the government responds, its actions
  2. public engagement – the effectiveness of government’s engagement with citizens they serve
  3. accountability – how government ensures that it is accountable with the citizens it serves, and the fourth dimension,
  4. technology and innovation and that’s how government applies innovation and technology to open data, to deliver transparency and to promote engagement and accountability to citizens.

The Government Information (Public Access) Act (GIPA Act) provides a vehicle that enables us to proactively release information. Under that Act, there is a mechanism called an Agency Information Guides (AIGs), they are key and they are a requirement for all agencies to establish a consistent mechanism for public participation in gaining access to information and also being informed of the work government agencies and opportunities to participate in the development of services and policies by those agencies. If agencies start from that consistent base there is greater certainty for citizens and there is also a greater opportunity for them to be participative.

We have some wonderful examples in New South Wales where open data has enabled citizens to make better decisions, to be more informed – TripView is one example. We also have the Data Analytics Centre that enables expertise to be applied to develop better ways of ensuring we can provide information, share information and encourage public participation.

2. Every public servant has a part to play in facilitating open access to information and building the NSW community’s confidence in open governance. What are some practical steps that public servants can take in their day-to-day work to support open and accountable government?

You are right. Every public sector employee has an obligation in that regard. The Government Sector Employment Act provides the values that must be upheld by government sector employees and they include promoting integrity and transparency. We have already talked about the role of transparency and accountability in open government.

If we look at the functions of the government, I think you could summarise them as being advising, developing and serving.  Government agencies advise Ministers, Cabinet, elected office holders, and citizens. They develop and enliven government policy and they implement election commitments; and they serve the Government and the public; and are responsible for the provision of fundamental services, health education, transport and much more.

But the steps we can take fall under four key headings:

Firstly, we need to demonstrate leadership and show commitment to government sector core values in increasing transparency and increasing information access. Then we need to know the process, we need to keep records and we need to provide information. So turning to each one of those separately, what can an agency do or what can an officer of an agency do?

They can ensure that they are familiar with the information release policies and practices so that they can act in accordance with them. They can provide as much information as possible; they can understand the processes for an agency’s authorised proactive release – that’s the information they are allowed to release proactively; and they can assist people, they can assist citizens by directing them to agency information guides, they can tell them about the agency and the sort of information that’s held, or they can tell them about parts of the agency or other agencies that might hold that information.

In terms of knowing the process – knowing how the work of providing information is undertaken by the agency. One of the responsibilities under the GIPA Act is the new knowledge that officers need to acquire: who’s responsible, who are the managers in the agencies, know the formal processes and know the informal processes, know what your website contains so that you can better direct people and know who to direct people to, for example, who the Right to Information officer are.

Thirdly, keeping records and now that is absolutely essential to integrity and open government. Now that is required to ensure we systematically maintain our records but also so they can be easily located and provided in response to an access application or for proactive release. There is also a requirement under a general retention and disposal schedule in accordance with the NSW State Records Act 1998 and it is essential that those records are kept in accordance with those legislative arrangements.

Finally, providing information – providing all the information to Right to Information Officer who is managing the GIPA application or also to those responsible for proactive release if they are different people. Ensure to check all of your agency’s recordkeeping systems, databases, filing or storage systems and where they might be likely to be kept. But also thinking how we communicate, so not forgetting emails, notebooks, post-it notes, text messages and social media and contacting the Right to Information Officer if you are not sure about that.

Importantly, the IPC recently launched a new fact sheet on agencies’ requirements on open access information under the GIPA Act because different agencies have different responsibilities and the fact sheet sets that out very clearly and can be found on our  website.

3. What part does the media have to play in the creation of open and accountable government, and how does this relate to the work agencies are doing to achieve this goal?

The media has a very significant part to play but citizens also have an important part to play in securing open access and also accountable government. The media can help by raising awareness and stimulating public interest with respect to individual issues but importantly they can highlight citizen’s rights to access to information.

In 2016 the IPC conducted a community attitude survey to measure the community’s knowledge of their right to access information and also to assess their views as to the importance of that right. The results of the survey were that 89 per cent of respondents articulated that the right to information is important and that was an increase of five per cent on the 2014 survey result. 79 per cent of respondents said they were aware of their right to access information and this is also an increase of about five per cent from the 2014 results. They are very pleasing results.

The media and the citizens can exercise their rights and receive information and participate in government processes and are stimulating an awareness of that right and galvanising community attitudes in this regard is essential to doing that.

I’ll talk about public interest. Public interest is at the very heart of the right to information legislation in New South Wales. It is a fundamental tenet of democracy, and the GIPA Act is a way of providing open and transparent processes for giving the public legally enforceable rights to access information.

The Act also encourages the proactive public release of government information and as I said for agencies and particularly officers of those agencies to look into how they can proactively release information is vital. That right enables citizens to participate in government decision-making and the development of policies and services. It also minimises the risk of corruption and enables citizens to hold governments to account.

During Right to Know Week which is the 25th of September to the 1st of October we are talking about open and accountable government and the media’s role in that regard. At the IPC we are encouraging everyone to live stream Queensland’s annual Solomon Lecture which is a key event in the Right to Know Week. The lecture this year will be presented by one of Australia’s most respected journalists Mr. Kerry O’Brien and that important presentation is to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Fitzgerald enquiry in Queensland. The lecture will streamed live on the Right to Know Day on 28th of September 2017 at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/the-edge-external-events.

This year NSW once again joins the open access jurisdictions in Australia to promote the right to information for all jurisdictions and we are meeting on the 28th and 29th of September in Brisbane to hear Kerry O’Brien and to discuss this important event. The event is designed to promote awareness of the fundamental right to information and its essential role in securing and enlivening a truly effective participatory democracy one in which citizens can hold governments to account, engage with government from a position of knowledge and ultimately build trust between the government and citizens it serve.

If you’d like more information on that event or any of our resources you can visit the IPC webpage to become a Right to Know champion and download a range of free resources and information. Thank you.

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Thank you to Ms Tydd for taking the time to answer our questions! Click here for further information about the Right to Know Week.

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