Former Aussie Minister Says Post-it Notes Used Skirt FOIA

12 August 2015

A former Australian minister has proposed additional protections against disclosure of documents used in the preparation of government policies.

Officials now routinely avoid writing down their advice or use post-it notes to avoid having their opinions disclosed, former Immigration secretary Andrew Metcalfe told a conference, an observation he said was based on conversations with many officials.

“Indeed, an impromptu straw poll on the conference floor, in which Metcalfe asked all those who had been told by a minister or adviser not to write something down, or who had self-censored in written comments, left only three people of around 150 with hands raised,” reported David Donaldson in The Mandarin. The remarks came at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) conference.

Policy formation “has been adversely impacted by the potential of disclosure of deliberative material,” Metcalfe was quoted as saying during his talk entitled “Policy advice by post-it note.” He also said, ““Speaking generally, there is less candour and rigour in the system, there is less trust in what should be the most trusted of relationships.”

Such comments have been made by other current and present Australian officials in recent months, as described in another Mandarin article.

Metcalfe said the use of post-it notes is ubiquitous.

The Mandarin reported:

He said he did not agree that access to deliberative documents “is essential to the proper functioning of our democracy in order to shed a spotlight on government decision making,” arguing instead that “there are many other ways to seek accountability. We have an auditor-general, an ombudsman, a human rights commission, parliament and parliamentary committees and the courts.”

Metcalfe did not make a particular recommendation or reform, but noted that a government-ordered review of government processes for the development and implementation of large public sector programs and projects will be completed soon.

Some of recent litigation on deliberative process, favorable to the government side, was summarized in Peter Timmins in his Open and Shut blog. Challenges have been made over the government’s refusal to release briefs provided to incoming ministers. Also see his extensive 2014 posting on “frank and candid.”

FreedomInfo.org has created a new library of resources on the deliberative process exemption. It now contains  information from model laws. Submissions about national deliberative process laws would be welcome. Write freeinfo@gwu.edu.

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