Request for qualifications and work history of staff at Polytechnic Department
Request for details about staff at Polytechnic—withheld under s 9(2)(a) to protect privacy—public interest in ensuring employment practices of Polytechnic are transparent and fair—met by summary release of staff details and selection process
The requester wrote to a Polytechnic asking for a breakdown of the qualifications and work history of certain persons who had been employed at the Polytechnic.
The Polytechnic refused this request saying that it had good grounds to withhold the information, yet it did not refer to any specific withholding grounds under the OIA, nor was the requester advised of his right to request a review of this decision by an Ombudsman.
In any event, the requester wrote to the Ombudsman asking him to review the decision.
The information consisted of curricula vitae of six staff members and completed application forms for an additional 14 staff members. It contained personal details of the respective individuals including their name, address, date of birth, information about their present occupation and work history. The Polytechnic advised the Ombudsman that it considered withholding the information was necessary to protect the privacy of the staff members. The Polytechnic explained that when potential employees provide curricula vitae to an organisation, they do so in the belief that this information will be treated confidentially.
Before being able to form a view on whether it was necessary to withhold the information to protect the relevant individuals’ privacy, the Ombudsman sought clarification from the Polytechnic as to what information had been provided to the students and/or the public about the qualifications and background of the relevant staff. Although the handbook for the Polytechnic contained some brief information about the relevant staff members, it did not disclose any personal information such as that requested. The complainant suggested that several staff members of the Polytechnic had already released a significant amount of information about themselves, including their background and work experience in the local media. The Ombudsman made enquiries in this regard and found that one of the staff members had released a large amount of information about their background and work history into the public arena.
The Ombudsman then consulted with the Privacy Commissioner regarding the application of section 9(2)(a) of the OIA. The Commissioner agreed with the Ombudsman’s assessment that there was a privacy interest which needed to be protected in respect of the information not already in the public domain because that information was provided to the Polytechnic for the purposes of employment and had not generally been made available by the Polytechnic in its publications or other material.
Having established that section 9(2)(a) applied to this particular information, the Ombudsman then went on to consider whether any public interest considerations in favour of releasing the information outweighed the need to withhold.
The complainant suggested that there was a public interest favouring release on the basis that anyone who seeks employment in the public service automatically surrenders a degree of their privacy that they were entitled to elsewhere in the work force. The Ombudsman noted that there was a public interest in ensuring the employment practices of the Polytechnic were open, and that candidates applying for positions were fairly assessed and appointments made on the basis of merit.
The Ombudsman formed the view that there was a privacy interest in the information at issue (with the exception of that already in the public domain) which required protection. Therefore, section 9(2)(a) applied.
Regarding the public interest favouring release of the information, the Ombudsman said that, although there may be a greater degree of accountability required of the public service as suggested by the complainant, section 4(c) of the OIA recognises that it is necessary to protect information to the extent consistent with ‘the public interest and the preservation of personal privacy’.
However, the Ombudsman did consider that the public interest in ensuring that the employment practices of the Polytechnic were transparent required the release of a statement explaining its selection processes, including advice as to the selection criteria. This did not extend to releasing contact details, grades or detailed work histories of relevant staff members.
The Polytechnic reviewed its original decision and released a copy of its staff appointment policy together with a brief summary of the work histories of the relevant members of staff.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.