FOI snapshot – When do employee details need to be disclosed?

November, 2014

Shadows at the entrance to Australia's Parliament House - Canberra

Key points:

In ‘BB’ and Department of Human Services [2014] AICmr 11, the Australian Information Commissioner set aside a decision of the Department of Human Services to partially refuse access to a document under the FOI Act.

The applicant sought access to a range of documents including “details of staff members who have accessed my Centrelink customer records” within a certain period. The Department released a number of documents but redacted the surname and the first initial of its officers on the basis that such information was conditionally exempt under s 47E(d) of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth). The Department contended that the disclosure of the officers’ names would:

  1. Be contrary to its enterprise agreement, which would harm the Department’s industrial relations, and
  2. Undermine its control of how the public contacts the Department, which would impede its management of customer contact.

The Commissioner did not accept these arguments and instead found that the documents were not conditionally exempt for the following reasons:

  1. The enterprise agreement did not unconditionally assure Departmental officers that their identity would be protected but provided that the Department would “work towards” giving individual officers “a choice” about whether they will disclose their identity in direct dealings with members of the public.
  1. The agreement also applied to situations in which staff members were responding to public enquiries and did not, on its face, apply to other situations in which staff members might have their names disclosed by the Department, including in responding to FOI requests.
  1. The documents sought revealed the details of officers acting in the course of their duties as employees in relation to a particular customer and it would not be reasonable to conclude that release of those names would divert contact on a scale that was substantial and adverse.
  1. More generally, the enterprise agreement provided that employees needed to remain identifiable (whether by their name or through other identifiers) and this undermined the claim that identification would impede the management of contacts made to the Department.

The decision reinforces the view expressed in the Guidelines issued by the Australian Information Commissioner that there needs to be special circumstances to justify the withholding of information that reveals the personal information of public servants in connection with their usual duties or responsibilities.

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Rohan White
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