State government departments and councils continue to drag the chain on attempts to increase transparency and accountability.
In a report marking the 10th anniversary of the NSW Government Information (Public Access) GIPA Act the state's Information Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd acknowledged improvements had occurred relating to the timeliness of decisions and the drop in the rate of deemed refusals.
However, she said it was "concerning" that the level of compliance among government departments regarding their open access requirements remained 'low'.
State government agencies received 17,246 valid access applications in 2019/20, the report found. Of those, 13,690 were from members of the public, up from 6000 in 2010/11. There was also a 230 per cent increase in applications seeking personal information between 2010 (3000) and 2020 (10,000).
Applicants with the highest release rates were private sector business (75 per cent). The report noted that the release rates for businesses were 'consistently exceeding' those for members of the public (70 per cent).
"This finding is significant in determining if the presumption in favour of access to information is operating as intended - to ensure that the public's right to know comes first," the report said.
Equally, low levels of compliance were still occurring in the local government sector in respect to councils' requirements to make available on their websites disclosures of pecuniary and other interests. The report described this as a "significant failure of systems, process, and culture."
"We could reasonably expect that after 10 years, significant cultural change had permeated government agencies to achieve mandated proactive disclosure, but that has not uniformly occurred," Commissioner Tydd said,
"Immature systems and process and more broadly, culture, impedes compliance with disclosure of assets by government departments and declarations of interests by local councils.
"Engaged and committed leadership is required to realise the objective of open government. Leaders must make obvious their commitment to open government and call for regular assessments of compliance within their agencies."
The Newcastle Herald has exposed a prevailing culture of secrecy among government agencies and councils in its Your Right to Know investigation.
Case studies included attempts to obtain information via the GIPA Act on cancer treatment waiting times and the government's plans to develop the Broadmeadow sports and entertainment precinct and plans to extend Newcastle light rail.
The Herald has also appealed four GIPA application refusals, or partial refusals, by City of Newcastle to the Information and Privacy Commission.
One of the appeals was upheld in council's favour, in the other three cases the IPC found that the council had unjustly withheld information and recommended it make new decisions. In all three cases, the council made new decisions releasing information it had previously refused to make public.
Hunter residents and community groups have also done battle with bureaucrats in an attempt to gain information over the past decade.
The Newcastle East Residents Group submitted more than 20 applications to multiple government agencies and the City of Newcastle in recent years seeking details of various aspects of the Newcastle 500.
Likewise Upper Hunter residents used GIPA to uncover information about aspects of the mining industry in the region.
Independent NSW MP Justin Field described his experience of seeking via GIPA as "hit and miss".
"Some departments and agencies are easy to work with and provide access to most information requested, others are far more inclined to decide against disclosure. There is no consistency and the process of disputing decisions is cumbersome and most people, I suspect, give up," he said.
"In my opinion this government has a problem with secrecy. They tend to hide information about the reasons behind decisions and that really frustrates the community. People are Ok when decisions go against what they might have wanted if the basis of those decisions are explained, but this government has a track record of hiding the justification whether that might be the business case or the submissions to a particular process that informed their decision.
"It's all well and good to have legislation to allow access to public information, but I think we need an approach to transparency that sees more information being made public as a matter of course."
Commissioner Tydd said there was an onus is on agencies to proactively deliver information to the public.
"In an environment that recognises information as a public asset, that asset should, like all public assets, be preserved against reckless destruction or interference. It is the responsibility of individual agencies to achieve high standards of disclosure and release to promote transparent government and elevate public trust in government."