On Reducing the cost of Freedom of Information requests

image: Department of Justice, Government of Victoria.

Those of you in State Government in Australia will be well familiar with recent changes in legislation around Freedom of Information legislation, specifically the Right to Information reforms in Queensland and the Government Information (Public Access) Act in New South Wales (affectionately referred to as ‘GIPA‘).

I talk about them a little in the related post ‘On the Current State of Government 2.0‘ if you’d like to learn more.

Myself and a number of my collegues have been doing a lot of thinking as to how technology and process can enable already stretched agencies to meet and even exceed the new ‘pro-active disclosure’ requirements of the legislation – the push model whereby information is provided to the public in advance of it being asked for in order to promote greater openness in Government – a key tenant of the Government 2.0 initiatives underway around the world.

More on the outcome of that thinking soon.

However, I saw last week a great example of using web based technology and the ‘push’ model to save resources and thus money in State government in one specific, yet common, scenario.

The State of Victoria hasn’t (as far as I’m aware) updated it’s FOI legislation to an RTI model similar to Queensland or New South Wales, however the Department of Justice saw the potential benefits of such a model for providing requesters with self service access to compliance certificates for speed cameras.

The situation was explained by Pat McCormick at the Effective Community Engagement conference last week. I’ll do my best to summarise:

A myth was doing the rounds in Victoria that most of the speed cameras in use did not have valid compliance certificates and therefore any speeding tickets resulting from them were not admissible in court. This led to a huge number of Freedom of Information requests from motorists that had been caught by cameras (obviously trying to get off the charge). Rather than incur the significant cost of responding formally to the FOI requests, the Department made use of the Cameras Cut Crashes site (which aims to provide information on the consequences of speeding) and created a Google Maps mashup providing access to the compliance certificate for any camera in Victoria.

image: Department of Justice Victoria 'Cameras Cut Crashes' website.

Now, any FOI request related to the camera is referred directly to the site, reducing significantly the cost of processing – especially when myths such as that which initiated the influx of requests start doing the rounds.

A great example of the benefits of Pro-Active Disclosure … and an example not only to Queensland and New South Wales but, I’m sure, many other state government authorities around the world.

Of course, not all scenarios are this simple, but there will be many, many cases that are. Perhaps 80% of documents in an agency that can be released in a search-able and machine readable way almost immediately. And if you’re agency doesn’t have the resources to build the appropriate mashups like this one, you can bet that there are a wealth of eager developers and citizen groups that just might want to take on the challenge.

Oh, and if you’re not already following Pat on Twitter, do. He’s doing some great stuff down there in Victoria.

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