RTI myths - busted

Queensland’s Right to Information Act 2009 (RTI Act) recognises that government information is a public resource, and that government openness enhances government accountability. The right to information, however, is not absolute and may not be black and white. The RTI Act protects government-held information—including highly sensitive information about individual community members—where it would be contrary to the public interest to disclose it. This guideline helps clear up some of the more common RTI myths.

Myth: Government is in the best position to know what information people need

Not necessarily. Community belief and participation in government is fundamentally connected with a timely and free flow of information between government and the community. Community members access government information to better inform themselves to participate in all kinds of government decision making, from consultation to court processes. Stakeholders will often be in a position to use government information in unanticipated ways; community organisations and industry might more appropriately target their services based on government data, but also use it to apply for funding grants to better service the community.

When undertaking compliance reviews, OIC looks for evidence that community engagement is two-way; that is, whether an agency is listening to the community about their information needs and responding by providing information the community wants. A public statement of commitment to engaging in two-way dialogue with the community about information needs is an effective means of clarifying community expectations and reinforcing a culture of openness.

Myth: We don't have to release information if it would embarrass the government

Not Correct. The RTI Act explicitly says that embarrassment to the government is not a reason to withhold information. It is an irrelevant factor, which agency decision makers are required to disregard when making their decision. Any potential mischievous conduct of the applicant is also an irrelevant factor.

However, if these circumstances arise, an agency can include context, an explanation, or additional information when releasing documents. For example, when releasing raw data about performance, the agency may choose to explain the data or provide a summary of its meaning or reasons for any variances.

Myth: Greater disclosure will reduce the quality of decision making

Not correct. Greater disclosure can enhance the quality of decision-making. Robust public debate and scrutiny can help identify overlooked issues, preventing costly mistakes, and openness often leads to increased public confidence in the processes of government. Information about high-level policy objectives or government decisions is often disclosed in media statements or during parliamentary debates, reducing the sensitivity of subsequent policy related information, and awareness of the potential for public scrutiny can result in clearer, more detailed, decisions.

Of course, whether information will be disclosed depends on the circumstances of each case, including the timing of the request, whether a decision has been made, what information is publicly available, and the content and sensitivity of the information in question. Where it would be contrary to the public interest to release, the RTI Act allows access to be refused.

Myth: Right to information means people have the right to get whatever information they want

Yes and no. RTI means people have the right to apply for almost any document held by government, without needing a reason or having to explain why they're interested, and the starting point is that everything they apply for is to be disclosed to them. Access can only be refused if it would be contrary to the public interest to release, and decision makers must have a pro-disclosure bias when making their decision. Some information, however, will be contrary to the public interest to release, such as personal information of other people or information that would subject someone to serious acts of harassment and intimidation.

Myth: Video footage is recorded for security purposes; it's not for people to access

Not correct. The RTI Act gives every person the right to apply for documents in the possession or control of an agency or a Minister. Document is very broad and includes hard copy and electronic files. Video recordings—including CCTV and bodycam footage, even where they were recorded for reasons of security or public safety—are documents. Creating and managing video footage means ensuring people can effectively exercise their access rights, and decision makers can effectively to meet their privacy and pro-disclosure obligations, over the footage. Because portions of the sound or video may be contrary to the public interest to release, RTI decision makers must be given the tools and training they need to efficiently edit video footage where it is appropriate under the RTI Act to do so.

Myth: The best way to access information is a formal RTI Act application

Not correct. Formal access applications under RTI are intended to be a last resort. Wherever possible, it’s always better, and often simpler and faster, to give information out administratively.

Depending on the information an agency regularly handles, it could be suitable for release on the agency's website, through an administrative access scheme, or in response to specific requests. When new documents or data are created, they can be considered for proactive release on the agency's website and all agency officers should know how help if someone asks for information.

Where information is not suitable for administrative release, a formal RTI application will be necessary—but even under the formal process, decision makers have the discretion to disclose information that would normally be contrary to the public interest to release.

Myth: Documents released under RTI are misleading because they don't tell the whole story or are released out of context

Not correct. In many cases, the documents received by an applicant in response to their RTI application will give them a complete picture. In circumstance where they don't, agencies are not limited to giving access only to those documents. An agency is free to provide additional documents, contextual information, or an opportunity to meet with relevant officers, so the applicant has the necessary context to properly understand the documents. Doing so can be beneficial to both the applicant and the agency and actively contributes to government transparency.

Myth: It's cheaper if we make people apply under the RTI Act

Not correct. Giving access to information administratively is cheaper and faster than making people access it under the provisions of the RTI Act. RTI access applications require decision makers to follow numerous, highly proscriptive procedures and issue formal notices of decision, all of which require time and agency resources. They may also mean your agency becomes involved in one or more review processes, which are not available for administrative access.

Myth: Text messages are not documents and don’t need to be disclosed

Not correct. The RTI Act applies to documents in the possession or control of an agency or Minister and text messages are a document. Text messages sent or received on an agency-owned phone are documents in the possession of the agency—and text messages sent from a personal phone can also be documents under the RTI Act if they have to do with the officer's job or the business of the agency; the subject matter puts them in the agency's control. This also applies to emails sent from private email addresses or social media messages in private accounts. For Ministers, if the messages or emails are in the possession or control of a Minister and they relate to the affairs of an agency, they'll also be subject to the RTI Act.

For both Ministers and agencies, those emails or messages will need to be given to the RTI decision maker if they're subject to an RTI request.

Myth: Sensitive information should be removed from documents before they're sent to the Right to Information officer

Not correct. The RTI decision maker is the only person, apart from the Principal Officer or Minister, who can decide to withhold information from an applicant. All relevant documents must be given to the RTI decision maker with no information removed; the Decision Maker will decide if, under the RTI Act, information is contrary to the public interest to release. If you have concerns, let the decision maker know, but it is ultimately their decision.

Myth: Marking a document confidential means it won’t be released under RTI

Not necessarily. The starting point under RTI is that all documents are open. Marking a document classified or sensitive, or giving it a secret or confidential classification, doesn't mean it won't be released. Any document applied for under the RTI Act will be considered according to the provisions of the RTI Act. This includes information other Acts make confidential.

Specific high security documents, such as Cabinet documents, are exempt from release and the RTI Act preserves the confidentiality status of certain Acts. Some documents, however, will be disclosed if it is clear that they are not confidential or sensitive. A number of factors can contribute to this, including the identity of the applicant, the document's public availability, and the passage of time. Decision makers will consider the document and its contents and apply the RTI Act to protect information which needs to be protected.

Myth: The RTI Act conflicts with the privacy principles

Not correct. The RTI Act works with the privacy principles in the Information Privacy Act 2009 to provide appropriate protections for personal information. The privacy principles create the everyday rules that protect personal information.  The RTI Act creates an access scheme for the lawful disclosure of government-held information that balances privacy protection—recognised as a strong factor against disclosure and requiring people to be consulted—with the necessary release of information for accountable and responsible government.

Myth: You always consult with third parties if someone applies for their information

Not quite correct. One of the ways the RTI Act balances privacy protection with government transparency is consultation with third parties. It requires decision makers to take reasonable steps to consult with third parties, but only if they're going to release a third party's information and the third party would have concerns.

This obligation to consult applies regardless of who the third party is. There's no exception if the applicant knows the third party or the third party knows the applicant: family, friends and neighbours are all third parties under the RTI Act. Unless the decision maker has reasonable grounds to believe that the specific family, friend, or neighbour would not be concerned about their information being released, they must try and consult with them.

Current as at: August 30, 2022