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Appointing Officers to RTI Positions: Public Information Officers

Section 5(1) of the Central Act requires the appointment of as many Public Information Officers (PIOs) in "all administrative units and offices" of the public authority as are necessary to provide the public with access to information. In practice, this means that virtually every government office should have someone in them who is designated as the PIO who will be responsible for receiving and processing applications.

Ideally, the PIO should be a senior person in the office so that they have the authority to make decisions on whether to release documents. Otherwise, if too junior a person is nominated they may be more reluctant to release information for fear of making a mistake and getting into trouble. This may make them err on the side of caution - as a result of which they may undermine the spirit of open government that the Central Act seeks to entrench.

It is important that all officers within each public authority understand the role of the PIO as they will be the "face of RTI" as far as other officials - as well as the public - are concerned. Sections 5(4) and (5) make it clear that all officers - no matter their seniority - have a duty to support the work of the PIO and to assist them to process applications, when requested.

PIOs generally have two key responsibilities:

  1. Receiving/facilitating requests: Requests are either sent directly to the PIO (or under the Central Act they can also be given to an Assistant PIO (APIO) who forwards it to the PIO). They can be given by hand, mailed by post or even emailed. The Central Act and most State Acts place a responsibility on the PIO to assist applicants to frame their request if they have difficulty writing up the request appropriately or if they are illiterate. The PIO (and APIO) is also responsible for issuing a receipt for the application.

  2. Responding to requests: The PIO is responsible for processing the request. Generally, this means that they will first need to find all the information requested. This may require them to ask other officers within the organisation to help to find information. They might even need to ask other departments to assist. The PIO will then need to look at the information collected and decide, taking into account the exemptions in the law, whether any or all of the information needs to be withheld from release. The PIO will then notify the applicant of their decision, within set time limits.

It is essential that the PIO understands the operation of the RTI law in detail. Although all members of the organisation should be given training on the relevant RTI law so that they understand their obligations and those of the organisation more generally, it is absolutely essential that the PIO is trained on the law as a matter of priority. They will be the first person responsible for applying the Act to applications, so it is important that they are confident in interpreting and applying the various provisions of the law.