The backlog of Right to Information requests with the Health Department has grown to almost 60 during the coronavirus pandemic, with an academic claiming the department is failing to meet its statutory requirements.
The department took three months to acknowledge an information request made by The Examiner in June, despite having a requirement to make a decision within 20 working days. The acknowledgement attempted to treat the request as new from last week, with an apology offered.
The request was number 56 in the queue, while University of Tasmania RTI expert Rick Snell has a request sitting at number 33 – in which he sought a single document from the Health Department relating to a feasibility study.
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This request has also passed its required timeframe for a decision.
Professor Snell said despite the pandemic, the department still had an obligation to respond to requests within the required timeframe.
“Let’s assume that their COVID justification – that the pandemic has resulted in employees being moved to other areas of the department – is reasonable, it’s still a fact that the legislation hasn’t changed,” he said.
“When you’ve got agencies not meeting statutory requirements, for whatever reasons, you’ve got a problem – either with workload, the allocation of that workload, or the priority that’s given to something like RTI.
“Most agencies around the country and the world are still processing these types of requests.”
Professor Snell said he encountered “a level of pigheadedness” from departmental staff in regards to his application, which “could have been sorted in 15 minutes”.
The departments of health and community services were separated in recent years, meaning there was no longer a past benchmark with which to measure the Health Department’s RTI performance.
Last year’s annual report showed the department processed about 30 requests for the financial year.
Just three RTIs – one from a journalist, two from members of parliament – have been published on the Health Department’s public log this year, one relating to personal protective equipment supply and another about the Royal Hobart Hospital’s helipad.
The government did not respond to a request for comment.