Australian Government — Office of the Australian Information Commissioner

FOI Essentials for Australian Government agencies and ministers

Freedom of information (FOI) plays a vital role in encouraging openness and transparency in the operations of government.

This toolkit has been designed for FOI decision makers in Australian Government agencies and ministers’ offices and will help you to:

Each section points to more information, tips and resources on our website.

What is freedom of information?

Freedom of information (FOI) is embraced by many nations around the world. Its governing principle is that members of the community should have the right to scrutinise information held by government and hold government accountable for its actions. Freedom of information recognises that an informed community is vital for the full and effective operation of a democracy.

Freedom of information is underpinned by four key principles:

  1. Freedom of information allows individuals to see what information government holds about them, and to seek correction of that information if they consider it wrong or misleading
  2. Freedom of information enhances the transparency of policy making, administrative decision-making and government service delivery
  3. A community that is better informed can participate more effectively in the nation’s democratic processes
  4. Information gathered by government at public expense is a national resource and should be available more widely to the public

Australia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act) came into force in 1982. It gives the public the right to access information held by Australian Government agencies and ministers, with some exceptions. The states and territories each have their own access to information laws covering agencies in their jurisdiction.

The FOI Act allows an individual, business or organisation to request access to a document held by an Australian Government agency, such as:

  • a document that contains the individual’s personal information
  • a policy-making document
  • an administrative decision-making document

They can also request access to an official document in the possession of a minister, but not to a minister’s personal or party-political documents, or documents about their electorate affairs.

An individual can ask an agency or minister to amend or annotate the personal information they hold.

It is not possible to access a document that is:

More tips and tools

Learn more about rights and responsibilities under the FOI Act, watch our video for FOI decision makers and read our 12 tips for good FOI practice.

Proactive release of information

Proactive release of information increases transparency and can help agencies manage resources more efficiently. This is achieved through the Information Publication Scheme, agency FOI disclosure logs and administrative access arrangements.

Information Publication Scheme

The Information Publication Scheme (IPS) requires Australian Government agencies to publish information proactively. It encourages greater openness and transparency in government and reflects the pro-disclosure objects of the FOI Act.

The IPS requires all agencies subject to the FOI Act to publish a range of information about what the agency does and the way it does it, as well as information dealt with or used in the course of its operations.

Categories of information that agencies must publish online include details of their structure, functions and statutory appointments, as well as operational information.

Agencies must also publish a plan describing how they will comply with the IPS requirements.

More tips and tools

The IPS is dealt with in Part II of the FOI Act. You can learn more about how to meet IPS requirements in our FOI Guidelines.

Use this table to check what you need to publish, and download the IPS icons for your agency’s website.

Disclosure logs

Agencies and ministers must publish information they have released in response to FOI requests on a disclosure log, with some exceptions (s 11C). This facilitates publication of a greater range of government information and reinforces the objective of the FOI Act to promote a pro-disclosure culture across government. It can also help to reduce the resources required to deal with multiple requests for access to the same documents.

Agencies and ministers must publish information within ten working days of giving the FOI applicant access to the information, except for:

  • personal information about any person
  • information about any person’s business, commercial, financial or professional affairs
  • information in a document that was exempt at the time access was given
  • Information that would have been exempt at the time access was given if the request had been made by someone other than the applicant
  • any information that is not reasonably practicable to publish because of the extent of modifications needed to delete the material listed above

Administrative access

Agencies and ministers can release information outside the requirements of the FOI Act via administrative access.

Administrative access can be used to release:

  • personal information to an individual about themselves
  • statistics or data relating to an agency or a minister’s key functions and activities
  • information available on the agency’s website that the applicant would like to access in a different form, and
  • documents that would be released in full if the request were made under the FOI Act

Where disclosure of the information sought may impact third parties or would result in information from the documents being heavily redacted before being released, it may be more appropriate to deal with the request through the FOI process.

Disclosure of information through an administrative access arrangement provides an informal avenue for accessing government information which may be more efficient for the agency and result in quicker processing times for applicants compared to processing requests under the FOI Act.

More tips and tools

Learn more about the benefits of administrative access schemes and use our checklist to help set one up.

Legislation and guidance

The FOI Act is supported by the FOI Guidelines issued by the Australian Information Commissioner. The Guidelines provide detailed information on how the FOI Act should be interpreted.

The FOI Act provides a legally enforceable right of access to documents held by government. It applies to Australian Government ministers and most agencies, although the obligations of agencies and ministers are different. It also covers Norfolk Island authorities.

Most Australian Government agencies are subject to the FOI Act, and must release documents in response to an FOI request unless there is an overriding reason not to do so.

Some agencies, such as intelligence agencies, are exempt from the FOI Act altogether. Others, such as some courts and tribunals, are exempt in relation to certain documents.

The Freedom of Information (Charges) Regulations 2019 set out the charges that can be imposed for processing an FOI request and how much can be charged.

The Freedom of Information (Prescribed Authorities, Principal Offices and Annual Report) Regulations 2017 set out the timeframes for agencies to provide FOI statistics to the OAIC and declares Aboriginal Hostels Limited to be a prescribed authority for the purposes of s 4(1) of the FOI Act.

Requests to agencies and ministers

An individual can request access to any document held by an agency. Requests to ministers, on the other hand, can only be for access to an ‘official document of a minister’. This means a document held by a current minister, in their capacity as a minister, that relates to the affairs of an Australian Government agency.

It does not include a minister’s personal or party-political documents, or documents about their electorate affairs. Ministers are also not subject to some of the proactive publication requirements the FOI Act places on agencies.

Exempt agencies

Some agencies, such as intelligence agencies, are wholly exempt from the FOI Act. All agencies are exempt from the FOI Act in relation to documents received or originating from those intelligence agencies.

Other agencies are exempt in relation to particular documents, such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in relation to program material. There are also several agencies, such as the courts, which are only covered in respect to administrative documents.

More tips and tools

Learn more about exemptions and conditional exemptions on our website and in Schedule 2, Part II of the FOI Act.

Deciding a freedom of information request

This checklist identifies the key steps to take when making a decision on a request for access to documents under the FOI Act.

1. Preliminary steps

Make sure you have authority to make decisions under the FOI Act for your agency. Check your agency’s authorisation instrument made under s 23 of the Act if you are uncertain. This should be published on your agency’s Information Publication Scheme.

Make sure you are clear about the timeframes you need to meet.

2. Analyse

Analyse the terms of the request broadly, avoiding a technical, narrow or legalistic approach.

If the request is vague or seems too large to be processed, consult the applicant as soon as possible to clarify the request or see if the scope can be narrowed.

3. Locate relevant material

Identify and collate the documents that are in the scope of the request. Our search checklist can help you carry out a thorough search and document it.

4. Consider transfer

If relevant documents originate from another agency, consider whether a transfer of part or all of the request is appropriate. Consult the relevant agency as soon as you consider transfer is a possibility — the processing time does not stop.

If relevant documents originate from an intelligence agency, you must transfer the request or the relevant part of the request to the responsible portfolio department.

5. Calculate charges

If you decide to impose a charge for processing a request and providing access to documents, the charge should fairly reflect the work involved.

Give the applicant an estimate of the charge and how it was calculated. You can ask for a deposit of 25% of the total ($20 if the estimate is less than $100).

You can reduce or waive a charge on the grounds of financial hardship, public interest or any other relevant reason.

6. Consult

If you are thinking of releasing documents that originate from or contain information of a third party who has a right to be consulted, undertake consultation under ss 26A, 27 or 27A. Advise the applicant that the processing time is extended by 30 days.

If it appears another agency has an interest in a document, consult that agency to make sure you have as much information as possible to enable you to make the correct and preferable decision. The processing time is not extended for this consultation.

7. Assess and decide

Determine the relevant facts. Make sure any findings of fact you rely on for your decision are supported by the documents you have collected and the available evidence.

If claiming an exemption, make sure the facts establish the necessary elements. If there is doubt, reconsider whether you should claim the exemption. If claiming a conditional exemption, make sure the facts establish the elements of the conditional exemption, and then apply the public interest test.

If it would not be contrary to the public interest to disclose the document, you must release it.

Consider whether it is possible to delete the exempt material from the documents and provide an edited version to the applicant.

8. Notify

Send the applicant a statement of reasons that explains your decision and the reasons for it. The statement of reasons checklist provides a useful guide.

9. Provide access

If you have decided to grant access to documents in accordance with the request, collect any outstanding charges first.

Provide access, in the form the applicant requested, as soon as possible, unless a third party was consulted under ss 26A, 27 or 27A during the processing stage. If a third party objected to the release of a document, do not release it until all the third party’s options for review of the decision have run out.

Before releasing the document, check that the third party has not applied for Information Commissioner review. You can call the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner on 1300 363 992 or send an email to to get this information.

You can give access in a different form in certain circumstances (s 20). You should also check with the OAIC whether a third party has applied for an Information Commissioner review. You may defer access in certain circumstances (s 21). Consider also if a person’s access to their own personal information should be given instead to a qualified person (s 47F).

10. Publish

Consider whether you need to publish the information you have released on your agency’s disclosure log. The following information does not need to be published in a disclosure log, if publication would be unreasonable:

  • personal information about any person
  • information about any person’s business, commercial, financial or professional affairs
  • information in a document that was exempt at the time access was given
  • Information that would have been exempt at the time access was given if the request had been made by someone other than the applicant
  • any information that is not reasonably practicable to publish because of the extent of modifications needed to delete the material listed above

Publish any other information you have released to an applicant within ten working days of giving access.

More tips and tools

Read our 12 tips for good FOI practice and our guidance on imposing charges, and see the FOI Guidelines for detailed information about processing and deciding requests for access.

Timeframes and extensions

The FOI Act requires you to acknowledge receipt of an FOI request within 14 days. You must process all FOI requests as soon as possible and no later than 30 calendar days after the day on which you received the request.

The 30-day processing period does not include:

  • the time an agency takes in a request consultation process to decide if a practical refusal reason exists (under s 24 of the FOI Act)
  • the time elapsing between an applicant being notified that a charge is payable and the applicant paying the charge (or a deposit on account of the charge), or the agency varying the decision that a charge is payable.

In some limited circumstances the statutory timeframe may be extended; for example, with the agreement of the applicant or if you need to consult a third party. An extension of time for a large or complex request may also be granted by the Information Commissioner.

More tips and tools

You can lodge an extension of time request with the OAIC using this form.

Learn how to avoid common mistakes when applying for an extension.

Reviews and complaints

Freedom of information applicants have the right to review an agency’s or minister’s decision to:

  • refuse access to documents
  • impose a charge
  • defer the provision of access to a document
  • refuse to amend or annotate a record of personal information

An applicant can seek either internal review with the agency or Information Commissioner review (IC review) of an access refusal or access grant decision, or IC review of a minister’s access refusal or access grant decision. There is no fee or charge applying to either internal or IC review.

The Information Commissioner considers that it is usually better for a person to seek internal review before applying for IC review, so that the agency can take a fresh look at its original decision.

Internal review

An application for internal review must be in writing (which includes an email or fax) and must be made within 30 calendar days after the applicant was notified of an agency’s decision. Internal review is not available if the decision was made by a minister or personally by the principal officer of an agency, or if an agency is deemed to have refused the request because the statutory timeframe has expired. In these situations, a person can apply directly for IC review.

If dissatisfied with an internal review decision, the applicant can apply for IC review of that decision.

Information Commissioner review

The Information Commissioner can review:

  • an ‘access refusal decision’ (s 54L(2)(a))
  • an ‘access grant decision’ (s 54M(2)(a))
  • a refusal to extend the period for applying for internal review under s 54B (s 54L(2)(c))
  • an agency internal review decision made under s 54C (ss 54L(2)(b) and 54M(2)(b))

The Information Commissioner may also review decisions that are deemed to have been made by an agency or minister where the statutory timeframe was not met. This may happen at first instance (following a request for access to information (s 15AC) or for amendment to a personal record (s 51DA)) or following an application for internal review (where the original decision is taken to have been affirmed under s 54D).

An application for IC review must be made within 60 days of notice being given of an access refusal decision (s 54S(1)) or 30 days of notice being given of an access grant decision (s 54S(2)). A person may apply to the Information Commissioner for an extension of time for making an IC review application (s 54T(1)).

Principles of the Information Commissioner review process

Review by the Information Commissioner of decisions about access to government documents is designed around several key principles:

  • it is a merit review process where the Information Commissioner makes the correct or preferable decision at the time of the Information Commissioner’s decision
  • it is intended to be as informal as possible
  • it is intended to be non-adversarial, and
  • it is intended to be timely

The Information Commissioner does not simply review the reasons given by the agency or minister but determines the correct or preferable decision in all the circumstances.

The Information Commissioner can access all relevant material, including material that the agency or minister claims is exempt. The Information Commissioner can also consider additional material or submissions not considered by the original decision maker, including relevant new material that has arisen since the decision was made.

For example, for the purpose of deciding whether a document is conditionally exempt, the Information Commissioner can take account of contemporary developments that shed light on whether disclosure would be contrary to the public interest. However, the right of access only applies to documents that existed at the time the FOI request was made.

Following review, the Information Commissioner can affirm or vary the decision, or replace it with a new decision.


An applicant who is unhappy with the handling of their FOI request can complain to the relevant agency or to the OAIC. The complaints process is set out under Part VIIB of the FOI Act.

While IC reviews are the best mechanism to review the merits of a decision, the OAIC may consider investigating complaints about FOI request handling and matters such as:

  • non-compliance with processing timeframes
  • not providing adequate assistance to an applicant to frame a request
  • failure to consult a third party

The OAIC has no power to investigate complaints about a minister’s handling of an FOI request.

Vexatious applicant declarations

The Information Commissioner may declare a person to be a vexatious applicant only if satisfied that:

  • the person has repeatedly engaged in access actions that involve an abuse of process
  • the person is engaging in a particular access action that involves an abuse of process, or
  • a particular access action by the person would be manifestly unreasonable (s 89L(1))

Although each declaration is different in the terms and conditions imposed, declarations will generally have the practical effect of preventing a person from making an FOI request. Making an FOI request is an important legal right conferred by the FOI Act, and so a declaration will not be lightly made. An agency that applies for a declaration must establish a clear and convincing need.

More tips and tools

Read recent IC review decisions and learn more about how to conduct an internal review and the merit review framework. See Part 12 of the FOI Guidelines for more information about vexatious applicant declarations.

Agency performance

All agencies subject to the FOI Act are required to provide statistical information to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) for inclusion in the OAIC’s Annual Report.

Statistics must be submitted through a portal on the OAIC’s website. If no FOI requests have been received during the period, the ‘Nil Return’ button should be selected.

Who must complete a return?

For information about agencies who are covered by the FOI Act, and must therefore complete a return, or have a return completed for them by the portfolio department, please see the FOI Guidelines – Part 2 — Scope of application of the Freedom of Information Act.

Reporting deadlines

Reporting deadlines for providing statistical information to the OAIC are established by regulation 8 of the Freedom of Information (Prescribed Authorities, Principal Offices and Annual Report) Regulations 2017. The deadlines for submitting returns are shown below.

For quarterly statistical returns about FOI requests and outcomes:

  • 1 July to 30 September: 21 October
  • 1 October to 31 December: 21 January
  • 1 January to 31 March: 21 April
  • 1 April to 30 June: 21 July

For the annual return about staff resources and other costs and comparisons with previous years:

  • For each year ending 30 June: 31 July

More tips and tools

Our FOIStats Guide provides detailed advice on how to enter FOI statistics, or read our FAQ about the statistics you need to produce.

Resources and support

The OAIC has a range of resources to help Australian Government agencies and ministers manage Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and proactively release government-held information.

Information Contact Officers Network

Our Information Contact Officers Network (ICON) has more than 500 members who work as information access and freedom of information (FOI) contact officers for Australian Government departments and agencies.

We send ICON members our Information Matters email bulletin, along with targeted updates about information access issues and events.

We also hold ICON sessions to share information about our activities and areas of interest such as FOI processing, Information Commissioner reviews and the Information Publication Scheme. The sessions are a chance for members to network and share knowledge with information professionals from other government agencies.

Join ICON by emailing us from an Australian Government email address.

International Access to Information Day

International Access to Information Day on 28 September recognises the community’s right to access government-held information and reinforces the role of government in promoting transparency and accountability. 

The event began as Right to Know Day in Bulgaria in 2002. In October 2019, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 28 September as the International Day for Universal Access to Information.

The OAIC undertakes a wide range of activities and events to celebrate International Access to Information Day, including information sessions for ICON members. Find out more on our website.