ATO ban on FOI requests through Right To Know

Today I published a story at ABC News on the ATO's decision to refuse freedom of information requests made through the website Right To Know.

As a companion to the ABC News story, here are the full statements I received from the ATO, OpenAustralia Foundation and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

Statement provided by the ATO on 23 August

The ATO takes its workplace health and safety obligations to staff very seriously. We are not processing FO [sic] requests via the Righttoknow website due to workplace health, safety, and privacy concerns arising from the refusal of the website administrators to remove inappropriate material, and our inability to contact them promptly as they do not provide a contact phone number or address for service on their website.

FOI applications should be made directly to the ATO by email to foi@ato.gov.au or by using the paper form available at www.ato.gov.au. Anonymous applications can be made by using an anonymous email address or the paper form. All general material to which privacy and secrecy laws to not apply released to FOI applicants is also made publicly available on the ATO’s FOI disclosure log available at www.ato.gov.au.

Further statement provided by the ATO on 24 August

The ATO’s decision to cease processing requests via the Right to Know website does not relate to one specific case. Rather, this decision was taken due to our concerns about systemic issues with the management of FOI requests through this website. In particular:

  • Publishing all procedural material about FOI requests is not acceptable, nor is having no contact number, address or ability to respond promptly to email requests.
  • We are particularly concerned with the names of staff processing the FOI request being published on the website, when this information is not relevant to the FOI application.
  • We also have concerns that the website takes no responsibility for supervising posts or removing unacceptable material, and the ATO will not be exposing staff to this risk.
  • The ATO complies fully with the FOI legislation. People can make FOI requests direct to the ATO by emailing foi@ato.gov.au or through the paper form available at www.ato.gov.au

Further statement provided by the ATO on 25 August

We have nothing further to add to our additional response.

We would just reiterate that:

  • our decision is not based on one isolated matter but concerns systemic issues around the management of the site.
  • we are particularly concerned with the names of ATO staff processing the FOI request being published on the website, when this information is not relevant to the FOI application.

Statement from OpenAustralia Foundation on 25 August

Thanks for giving the OpenAustralia Foundation, the charity that runs Right To Know, an opportunity to respond. Here's our response:

Up to now we’ve had a good working relationship with the ATO. We’re genuinely baffled by the reasoning they use to justify their refusal to process requests via Right To Know.

Since receiving their first FOI request from a person using Right To Know almost 4 years ago the ATO has helpfully responded to dozens of other requests. From time to time we receive takedown requests from people and government agencies and we act on each and every one of them in line with our clear takedown policy.

In total, the ATO has sent us 5 takedown requests. We give every request serious consideration and have responded to each within a day. We agreed with 4 requests and promptly acted on them to remove the material. One of the most recent requests did not meet our takedown policy so we have not taken it down.

We’ve previously been asked to redact the names of ATO staff due to a processing error made by the ATO which put their staff at risk. We responded within an hour and agreed to take down the material, giving the ATO time to supply correctly redacted documents a few days later.

In this case we have not been asked to redact names. Instead we were asked to remove a request by a member of the public for an internal review into the decision about their FOI request. The ATO claimed that they found it abusive towards their staff members. The ATO’s takedown request did not meet our takedown policy, so we have left the request up on Right To Know.

We work hard to ensure that Right To Know is a safe environment where people can work productively with government on furthering the government’s own goals of being open and transparent. We stand by our community and join their polite and respectful calls to the ATO to start processing the valid FOI requests made to them by people using righttoknow.org.au.

Comment by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner on 26 August 2016

This issue has recently been brought to our attention and we are in the process of making enquiries about the issue as part of those enquiries will be making contact with the Right to Know website administrators.