FOI Update : The Pro Disclosure Culture of the Australian Taxation Office

Now how widespread is this issue?

This may be regarded by some as one of my more controversial posts. After a lot of thought and conversation I have decided to go ahead and publish this post. I decided to so as I do not believe it is right for public sector agencies to hide information concerning their organisational health from the public.

I also do not believe it is right for agencies to take an extremely controlling approach to releasing information to their own staff. The level of paranoia emanating from corporate areas on the release of employee engagement survey data is unwarranted and unhealthy in its own right. In my experience the results of such surveys contain both good and bad feedback. Issues concerning organisational health can only be effectively addressed by being much less risk averse and not engaging in ‘spin’.

In February I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) in relation to their employee engagement survey. The Taxation Office refused my request. I reported on their response in my post Australian Taxation Office Employee Engagement Survey – Beyond FOI?

Before continuing I want to make it clear that the information being sought and the Taxation Office’s response to that request have nothing to do with the tax related functions of the Taxation Office or the hard work of staff involved in serving the community. The request and the survey data do, however, have a lot to do with the organisational health of the Taxation Office.

I also want to make it clear that the Taxation Office is not being vexatiously singled out. The fact of the matter is that the Taxation Office is a large lead agency and should set a leading example in relation to freedom of information matters related to organisational health.

Earlier this month I approached the Taxation Office for a second time making the same request. I did so on on the basis of information received from a trusted source. That information indicated that at a meeting of the Taxation Office’s National Consultative Forum held on 28 February 2012 the Commissioner indicated that the Taxation Office had just received documents associated with the results of their employee engagement survey.

It was also pointed out by the Taxation Office that 15,000 comments were made by staff when responding to the survey, that each comment was anonymous and that the ATO understood that the survey company had ensured this was the case.

I was recently contacted by a Taxation Office staff member (Legal Services Branch), concerning my request. The key points of that conversation were as follows:

Important: The points are not strictly verbatim, but are an accurate account of the key points. Our conversation was quite lengthy.

ATO: I am not sure what information you want.

SD: A copy of my initial request was attached. A copy of the survey, quantitative data and qualitative data is what I requested.

ATO: We cannot release data on individuals.

SD: The quantitative data does not identify individuals and the standard approach is to ‘chunk data up’ so that individuals cannot be identified.

ATO: But they are the records of the responses of individuals.

SD: Unit data that is released does not enable individuals to be identified. That is what the Australian Bureau of Statistic does and, indeed, what research companies do. It is important to ensure that individuals cannot be identified and everyone is on the same page on that score.

SD: This is precisely what the APSC did when publishing data for the State of the Service Report to data.gov.au. I fail to see why the ATO cannot take the same approach.

ATO: Are you suggesting we should publish the results of the ATO’s employee engagement survey to data.gov.au

SD: Why not? The ATO is a lead agency and should, I believe, set a leading example.

ATO: If we approve your request you will be able to publish the results of the ATO’s employee engagement survey.

SD: That’s the intent. To publish the results to the internet for all to see. Citizens and ATO employees.

ATO: We have our internal processes for communicating the survey results to staff. We cascade them down by sub- plan and business line etc.

SD: Yes I know. That’s drip feeding information in my view.

SD: I acknowledge there are difficulties with qualitative data (comments) as respondents may name other people and, therefore, compromise privacy. The issues are complex, but this is something we should work towards. (Meaning that we could put this component of my current freedom of information request on hold).

ATO: This will take time (examining my freedom of information request with relevant Taxation Office staff).

SD: That’s fine. I’m more than happy for there to be an extension of time. That’s what happened with the APSC and, in fact, we mutually agreed to take that particular request out of the FOI domain and treat it as a profession matter.

ATO: I’ll have to discuss this with the relevant areas of the ATO and get back to you.

SD: That’s fine. Cheers

During our conversation the Taxation Office staff member also referred to aspects of the employee engagement survey related to matters that were commercial in confidence between the Taxation Office and the private provider responsible for the conduct of the employee engagement survey. I indicated that in my view it was wrong to be inserting clauses in contracts that prevent the release of survey results – especially when it is well known that we are operating in an ‘FOI environment’.

The other aspect of this discussion that concerns me is the reticence associated with the release of data to Taxation Office staff. Surely all the data and comments (suitably redacted), associated with employee engagement surveys should be released to staff. Communication is important, but cascading information (providing summary data only), and messages down says more about control and risk aversion than it does about open communication and engagement with staff.

Creating a pro-disclosure culture within Australian Public Service agencies cuts both ways – for the community and for staff. In addition, there is something deeply concerning about being less than completely open about the results of engagement surveys. Such surveys are an important indicator of organisational health. Especially the relationship between management and staff.

Given the role of the Taxation Office in the Australian community we all have a vested interest in the Taxation Office being a healthy organisation. Consequently, the results of staff engagement surveys should be published for all to see. Not just those of the Australian Taxation Office mind you. All Australian Public Service agencies should do so.

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