A lack of funding has led to increasing delays and backlogs at the national privacy and information watchdog, with skyrocketing FOI and privacy complaints.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner fronted up to Senate Estimates on Tuesday afternoon, and outlined how its workload was continuing to build.
Information Commissioner Angelene Falk said that the number of Freedom of Information request reviews received by the OAIC increased by 16 per cent in the last financial year to nearly 1000. These review requests have risen by 80 per cent in the last four years.
This drastic increase, without accompanying extra funding or resources, had led to significant backlogs and delays in processing reviews. Ms Falk said she was now of the view that the only thing that would fix this is additional funding from the federal government.
“Since I’ve been in the role, we’ve extensively reviewed our IC review processing and implemented further workflow management and process efficiency measures. But the substantial and sustained increase in IC review applications over recent years has widened the gap between incoming work and finalisations, resulting in increased delays and backlogs,” Ms Falk told Senate Estimates.
“In order to meet the timeline objective of the FOI Act, and provide faster outcomes for the community, additional resources are required. The OAIC continues to work with the government in relation to our resourcing needs.”
The OAIC has received some additional funding in recent years, but this was earmarked for specific new roles, such as its responsibilities in the Consumer Data Right scheme, and for new online privacy efforts.
Ms Falk said she had been in discussion with government for additional funding since August last year. In terms of FOI requests, the current team of 19 case officers would need to be increased by at least nine more team members to address the FOI backlog.
“There needs to be an increase in the staffing resources and the quantum of that depends on the time in which the backlog is going to be addressed and the ultimate goal in terms of how quick the information reviews should be handled,” she said.
“I’ve formed the view, having conducted a number of reviews of the way in which we’re carrying out the work that the only way in which the gap is going to be closed is for additional staffing resources to be provided.”
The OAIC’s need for more funding and resources has been regularly discussed at Senate Estimates in recent years as the office faces “unprecedented challenges”. But Ms Falk’s clear statement on the need for more funding is the most direct the Information Commissioner has been about the issues the office is facing.
With growing backlash over tech companies exploited user information and a series of major data breaches, the OAIC is also looking to take a more active enforcement role.
Ms Falk said the agency will be shifting from “predominantly being an alternative dispute resolution body focused on conciliation”, to being more proactive around enforcement mechanisms.
The OAIC also confirmed that its work on the government’s facial recognition plans has been “deferred” indefinitely due to delays in passing the necessary legislation.
Under a Memorandum of Understanding, the office had been tasked with completing two privacy assessments of the federal government’s interoperability hub, a key part of its controversial facial recognition and biometrics scheme.
“That has been deferred on the basis that the system is not fully functioning. The legislation has not passed so it is deferred until such time as it would be appropriate for us to assess the way in which the system is operating in accordance with the privacy safeguards,” Ms Falk said.