The focus of the Office of the Information Commissioner at every stage of a complaint is on attempting to reach an informal resolution that minimises the time and resources that participants are required to contribute to the complaint process.
In some cases, this may simply involve providing sufficient information to a participant to allow them to realistically assess the strengths and weaknesses of the position they have taken.
In others, the Office will explore with one or more participants their objectives and needs and suggest alternative resolutions.
This may involve considering solutions completely outside the Information Act 2002.
These strategies need not be limited to complaints that have reached the Information Commissioner. They can be equally effective to resolve disputes at an earlier stage.
Samples of approaches that might be adopted are set out below. They do not represent all the available options. In any case, the approach taken will depend on the objectives and needs of the parties, any applicable legal restrictions or policies and consideration of implications for the future operations of the organisation.
In some cases, no obvious informal resolution will present itself, or one or more of the parties will want to proceed to a decision. At the time of making a decision about access to government information, the Commissioner and decision-makers within organisations must not be concerned about or take into consideration, the reasons that access is being sought.
Note: These samples are not taken from experience in the Territory. They do not reflect on the performance or procedures of any Territory organisation.
Josè's land is about to be resumed for a new power station. He applies for all information about the decision to select the new site and about the resumption. A lot of the material about the choice for the site was considered by Cabinet, which gave approval for the site. A lot of the other material is legal advice. Mary, the Department's Information Officer, contacts Josè to explain the Cabinet and legal professional privilege exemptions. She also offers to send him some guidelines and previous decisions on those exemptions. She explains that this is only part of the material and that she will deal with the other documents within the 30 day period.
Josè is not happy but after he reads the guidelines and cases, and discusses them further with Mary, he agrees that there is little point in pursuing Cabinet and legal documents. He agrees to withdraw his application for it. But he says he still wants to get access to the other documents.
Josè receives Mary's decision but believes there should be other documents held by the Department. He wants an internal review. Max, the Internal Review Officer, contacts Josè to clarify what documents Josè believes should exist. Max gets the impression that Josè has not been told much about the resumption process. Max contacts the officer handling the resumption to query whether it would be possible (and worthwhile) for that officer to meet with Josè to give a basic explanation of the resumption process and the type of documents that might be created. That officer agrees to meet with Josè.
Max arranges a meeting between himself, Josè and the resumption officer. At the meeting, it becomes clear that the resumption relates to only one block of land owned by Josè, and the process is explained to him. The resumption officer agrees to provide some additional policy documents that explain the resumption process. Josè indicates that he is happy to withdraw his request for an internal review.
John applies for all information to do with environmental regulation of a cattle feedlot for the past two years. Mike, the Department's Information Officer, contacts John. It turns out that John is very annoyed about the noise that comes from the feedlot on weekend nights when cattle are delivered or taken away.
This issue is not the responsibility of the Department, and Mike tells John that the Department is unlikely to have any information about it. However, he gives John the details of the website of another Department that explains how to complain about noise. He also makes inquiries and speaks to an officer of the relevant Department, who agrees to talk to John about the issue. Mike gives John the contact details, so that he can follow it up. John withdraws his application.
Bruce asks for all information about an alleged assault that was investigated by the Police. Bruce was the alleged offender but no charges were laid. Bruce applies for everything to do with the investigation. Maria, the Information Officer, is concerned about disclosing personal information about the victim, and is inclined not to disclose the information. Maria contacts Bruce to see whether he is willing to narrow the terms of his application. Bruce says he still wants everything but says he has reconciled with the victim, and that she will have no objection.
Maria contacts the victim and briefly describes the nature of the information in issue. The victim says she is happy for everything to go out apart from some personal medical information. Maria is satisfied that the victim has given her consent freely. Maria contacts Bruce, who confirms that he is happy to accept the information subject to deletion of any information the victim does not want disclosed.
GNP is a development company that is proposing a tourist complex near Tennant Creek. An informal consultation process conducted by a Department has obtained the names and addresses of 420 objectors. GNP applies for access to the names and addresses. Corie, the Department's Information Officer, contacts GNP to get background and explains that the Department may have to consult each of the objectors. This will be at significant cost to GNP.
GNP explains that its main concern is that it thinks a lot of the objectors are from Darwin, and that their concerns should be given less weight than local objectors. Corie asks whether GNP would be willing to narrow its application to information about the town or region the objectors live in. This would remove information that would identify any individual, and mean that consultation is not necessary. GNP says it would be happy with that.
[Note: In this case, Corie could even suggest that she simply produce a table that listed numbers against the particular town or region. This might be easier than editing a lengthy document. In some cases, it might even be possible to provide information to a suburb or street level. But care would have to be taken to ensure that no-one could be identified.]
Alicia is concerned about her mother's treatment by Doctor M at a public hospital. She heard that a recent report showed his patient's had higher than usual complication rates. She applies for the report. Marco, the Information Officer, talks to Dr M about the report. Dr M is concerned about disclosing the report but says he would be happy to talk to Alicia and her mother about her treatment. Marco talks to Alicia. She agrees to meet but does not withdraw her application.
Alicia, her mother and Dr M meet and have a lengthy discussion. However, Alicia still wants to get access to the report. Dr M and Marco then meet. Dr M indicates that he would not object to release of the report if he has the chance to explain his position. Marco discloses the report along with a written explanation prepared by Dr M.
MAB is a pool company that has been unsuccessful in a tender process. It applies for commercial information about the successful tenderer, OJ. Yvette, the Information Officer, consults OJ. She meets with the Manager and explains that exemptions are likely to be limited to sensitive commercial information. OJ agrees that it does not object to disclosure of much of the information but is very concerned about some pricing information.
Yvette meets with MAB and explains OJ's position. She asks MAB whether it would be concerned about releasing this type of information if OJ or another competitor sought it in relation to another tender. MAB acknowledges that it is sensitive information and agrees not to pursue access to the pricing information.