Data-driven journalism making inroads, but hampered by FOI laws

Information

Flickr/epha.

If Tim Berners-Lee is to be believed, the news stories of the future will be found not so much by talking to a  source in a bar, but by interrogating relationships in data. Developing the skills needed to understand and manipulate data – to uncover it, interpret it, and then share it with an audience – promises to re-imagine the scope and scale of what journalism can do.

Some journalists have taken to this new means of storytelling with zeal. Others are concerned that it is yet another skill they have to master in an industry where they already feel the pressure of having to do more with less time. Others still are nonplussed by the term itself – after all, isn’t “normal” journalism already data-driven?

One such person practising data-driven journalism in Australia is Sharona Coutts. After three years with the Pulitzer Prize-winning news organisation ProPublica, Sharona has launched the investigative unit for the non-profit journalism website The Global Mail. Sharona spends much of her day digging through publicly released data sets to uncover the truth  – but as she explains to me, it’s not all smooth sailing.

Sharona, when most people think of journalism, any number of popular stereotypes spring to mind. They might think of Woodward and Bernstein; they might think of a chain-smoking hack; perhaps more recently they think of Sorkin’s precocious fast-talking twenty-somethings from The Newsroom. What they probably don’t think about – but should – is an increasing number of journalists pulling together and poring over data-sets, mining it for specific information, and then using that to tell a story. A few things: firstly, tell us about yourself; what’s your role at The Global Mail? And secondly, for the unacquainted, what is data driven journalism, how did you come to practice it – and why should we care about it?

I’d start by saying that as far as Australia goes I wish people would think about the Watergate stuff a bit more than they do, because I think in the United States there’s a real tradition of journalists as hero, and that is important to the profession over there. It matters how the public perceives what we do and how we do it. The scandals with Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper operations have been very damaging to journalism as a whole, and in Australia we don’t have a tradition, really, of journalists has hero. I think that you can actually see that feeding into some of the other difficulties that we have, especially when it comes to data-driven journalism, and what I have in mind is – we don’t have in Australia very well-functioning laws that allow us to access to information that we need – and which, frankly, we as the public pay for. It’s about us. We pay for it. We have a right to access it. In the United States, it’s much easier to access government data sets than it is here. Over there, for instance, you are able to find information for example on the location of oil spills. Every incident report regarding an oil refinery. Violence in schools. You can find information about bridge safety inspections. Why is that important? Well, a few years ago a bridge collapsed killing a lot of people, and it was possible for journalists, very quickly, to look at a.) when was this bridge last inspected, and has there been negligence on the part of administrators? and b.) which other bridges around the country have gone for too long without inspections? These are all very real and very practical and important things that concern the public, and yet in Australia it’s almost impossible, realistically, to get most of that information. For example, I really want to call out the Department of Health and Ageing – federally – which, in my mind, is the worst, most secretive department that I’ve encountered. They are terrible. We were on a story earlier this year exposing the fact that they were effectively covering up fraud in their aged care funding instrument. We got internal memos that basically said they knew that there was fraudulent claiming going on by the people that run aged care homes. These are people basically who are using old people as a tool to defraud the Australian taxpayer. Will the government tell us who is doing it? No. We have lodged an FOI request for materials that relate to that internal investigation and they told us that the price of releasing those would be $65,000 – which they have generously reduced to $600 – but in my view they’ve got absolutely no grounds to charge that money. Why? If they’re saying the real cost is $65,000, then $600 is meaningless to them – but it does mean that for most news organisations, particularly non-profits, that it’s impossible for us to obtain the information. It’s put there purely as a way to inhibit us from finding out what they’re doing. So, basically, I want to call out that department and the minister, Mark Butler, in particular, as shameful and secretive – but I would say that there’s a pervasive attitude in Australia that doesn’t acknowledge the importance of releasing information to the public – notwithstanding that they’re about to embark on a historic move to collect information about us, and use it for their own purposes.

[Note: you can read a statement from the office of the Hon. Mark Butler MP at the bottom of this blog post.]

Sharona Coutts

Sharona Coutts graduated with honours from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2008, and worked at ProPublica before heading up The Global Mail’s investigative journalism unit.

My role at The Global Mail is that I’m the lead investigative reporter here. How did I become interested in data-driven journalism? My background is in the law, so I’m very interested in facts. I’m very interested in evidence. I guess I come from a background where you are used to requiring a higher standard of proof. So, that was already in place. I had actually started playing with spreadsheets myself – this is back in 2006 – because I had a sense that – I had friends who were accountants and forensic accountants, things like that, and I had a sense that part of what they did in order to find fraud was that they would use numbers to run analyses and they would find outliers. They would find people, or companies, or accounts, that really didn’t fit the expected pattern that you’d normally see. They’d use that as a launch pad to say why? Sometimes it was totally innocent, and other times – for instance, if you are the hedge fund that happens to have a completely consistent annual rate of return, no matter what happens to the rest of the market, maybe you’re a genius, or maybe you’re Bernie Madoff. So, I was already interested. When I got to Colombia University in 2007, that was one of the things that we started to talk about and I’m actually proud to say that I was the student in the investigative seminar who made the shockingly nerdy demand that we be taught Excel and Access, and how to use them well enough – if not to do all of our own analysis, at least to understand what we wanted to do – and to be able to find people who could help us do them.

So, what is data-driven journalism? What it’s not is a substitute for everything else that journalism always has been. Data-driven journalism does not replace, in any way, the need to talk to experts – real people telling stories. It also doesn’t substitute verification. Just because your data says something doesn’t mean it’s true. Data is just like any other source. It can be wrong, it can tell lies, it can be incomplete, and it can be misunderstood. So, those are the things that it’s not. What it does do basically, I think, is – the real beauty of it is data can elevate anecdote into proof of systemic failures, or of particular wrongdoing. For example, when we wrote our story about the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Authority earlier this year – that’s the fairly new national register that provides details of the disciplinary history of all health practitcioners in Australia, over half a million people. The government encourages patients and employers to rely on that when they want to check up on their health practitioner. Well, we found one, then two, then three, then four instances where it was wrong. Where people had committed very, very serious offences – not just disciplinary, but criminal offences and had been convicted – where their record said that they had none. No disciplinary problems. When we brought the first one, two, three four cases to the agency, what did they say? Well, they said what people in authority always say, whether it’s governments or corporations: they blamed a rogue, essentially. Human error. This is a rogue; this is a one off. Well, when we went back to them with more than 100 cases where it was wrong, they couldn’t say that anymore. It’s that old adage, you know: when it’s one, it’s your problem, or it’s a rogue; when it’s 100, it’s their problem. We forced them to make changes. We identified what needed to be done. That’s, I think, an example of elevating anecdote into proof.

There’s lots to unpack there with your opening remarks, but if I could just go back to one thing. I’m sure there are many pithy ways of describing the craft but here’s one. Jonathan Stray, the journalist and computer scientists, defines data journalism as “obtaining, reporting on, curating and publishing data in the public interest.” That sounds straightforward enough. You’d expect, however, that at lot of the organisations that house or have access to data in the public interest – and you’ve mentioned this, but I’m wondering if you could expand on it – for example, levels of government and the private sector – they would make it their goal that journalists never lay eyes on it, let alone develop an interest in the kind of data we’re talking about. I’m wondering if you tell me more about these experiences you’ve had with coming up against opposition – and how you went about circumventing it and getting the data you wanted, and with it, to a story?

Okay. The two are very different, government versus private enterprise. Private enterprise is not under any obligation, unless they’re a public listed company, or answer in any other way to a regulator. Generally speaking, private companies are not under any obligation to disclose their data. You can’t make them. They don’t want to. As a journalist, you have no legal means to do that. I think it’s worth repeating, because although people know this, I think it’s still worth saying: journalists don’t have any subpoena powers. We can’t get anything from a private company or an individual, unless they want to give it to us. We have to persuade them. So, that’s different. As for government, I guess I have a slightly different view to yours, in that I don’t think all of them want to keep data secret. My experiences have actually been some that really want to make it public. For example, in the United States, the federal Department of Education have an office for civil rights in that department. The reason they have that is because the United States has a very long history of racial problems, especially in the school systems. They were desegregated officially only in the 1950s but, in fact, it took a lot longer than that, and there are good arguments to say that realistically, in some places they are, in practice, still segregated by race. Not legally, but the white parents send their kids to one school and black parents and latino parents send their kids to other schools. They collected a massive amount of data and they gave it to me. They wanted us to work with it. They wanted us to take a hard look at what was going on in public schools. We did, and when we found problems with their data collection we told them. We maintained our independence. We said that we were going to have to write about the problems in your data set because there were problems. They were receptive to that and they actually thanked us – and they said, you know what? Next time we actually do this, we’ll be able to incorporate a lot of changes, thanks to your suggestions. It’s not to be assumed that governments will be secretive. I think that’s huge, because what it tells me is that actually they shouldn’t be. Actually, that’s aberrant. Governments to be secretive, and to consider that they don’t have an obligation to make their data which is about us, which we pay for – that is aberrant. We shouldn’t accept it. Nevertheless, that is overwhelmingly the case in Australia. There are some little changes. The government runs a program on purporting to encourage openness with data. They have a site called data.gov.au but it’s not really that useful. There’s a lot of problems in this country, particularly, where the agencies that hold the information are exempt from the freedom of information act. The best example: the agency called ACARA holds all of that data about schools that the federal government uses in their My School website. Now, ACARA claim – and I actually believe them – that they’re exempt from freedom of information. It’s absurd. It’s a complete absurdity. They make that information public on their own – very, very bad – website. They are also now saying that they’re going to use that information to determine school funding. It’s outrageous that they won’t give it to reporters to work with. I have been told by an ACARA official that if I want that data I should just scrape it. That’s outrageous. Why should we? Do you know why it’s outrageous? Scraping is not perfect. So, they’re saying use the data, but use it where it might contain errors. They’re not saying, we object to you using the data; they’re saying we just won’t give it to you. That’s an absurdity. On the face of it, that’s an absurdity.

Do you think there are any structural issues and organisational cultural issues at play that underpin this kind of attitude? I’m not sure if an unwillingness is the right word to describe it, but these difficulties that you encounter when working with some government departments – how do you think they come about? Do you think it’s an attitude that’s not necessarily born out of malice, but a sense that they’re under resourced? We don’t have the equipment, we don’t have the skills. Is it possible that they’re throwing up their hands in despair, and you as a journalist are just going to have to scrape the data because no other solution exists at present?

That’s absurd, though. They could give it to us. They’re using it themselves to put it on their website. It’s bullshit. Let’s be honest. Bullshit. If I thought that they were open to having a real conversation about releasing information, I would spend time trying to analyse all the organisational and psychological reasons, but I don’t think they are. The truth is, it doesn’t matter why they’re not releasing it. They’re so far away about having a genuine conversation about why they won’t, that it doesn’t even matter. They’re still operating as if the freedom of information act was never amended. That act says that they must err on the side of openness. It also says that one of the factors that they are not allowed to take into account when deciding whether to give information to the public is whether, by giving it, there will be an unpleasant debate, or we might be confused, and yet I am convinced that that underpins a lot of their basically reflexive rejections. The other thing is of course there will be instances where they can’t release information because of privacy concerns. This notion we have in Australia of commercial in confidence is outrageous. They will tell me that they can’t release information about specific nursing homes because that would have privacy considerations and breach commercial confidence. I’m sorry, but this is an industry that subsists almost entirely on taxpayer money and looks after our most vulnerable community members. If they don’t want to be in the business of taking taxpayer money, no-one’s forcing them to, but given that they are, I think part of the bargain is that they need to be subject to scrutiny. I just don’t accept it. On the face of it, I don’t accept the notion of commercial in confidence in that situation. Obviously, I wouldn’t expect to be given the draft contracts while negations are still afoot. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority has refused many times to release what’s called the risk registers, where they went through and analysed all of our banking institutions. They’ve done it numerous times over the years. They still maintain that they can’t release assessments that they released back in 2008 because of commercial considerations and because of the systemic risk. Haven’t we heard all this stuff before? This notion that secrecy is good. Those sort of systems have been debunked. Plus, I’m not asking for the risk registers that they’ve done in the last six months. These things are over four years old. I just actually reject their reasoning. I think they’re wrong.

I’ve heard some people express the belief that there should be more “data driven whistle-blowers” – people who are prepared to circumvent the problems you’ve just described and pass data to journalists. Is that a bit of a legal minefield? Does it make if difficult for journalists to tell stories given the way in which that data might be obtained?

Yes, maybe. We cannot ask people to break the law. That’s not what we do. This is a world where we rely on whistleblowers. There’s a lot of bravery about someone who decides, that at great personal and professional risk to tell someone, a responsible person, a trained person – i.e. a journalist – about a problem that’s occurring, and to provide evidence. It takes a lot of courage. Usually, if somebody leaked me a document – and every case is different, you have to assess each one – that’s not going to be an issue for me. It could be an issue for them.

I just want to take you back to some of your earlier comments about how there are opportunities for hybrid models, employing user generated data sets. We’re seeing a growing trend towards open data projects, where a whole treasure-trove of data is made publicly available any everybody and everyone. They’re free to sift through it. Is this a good or a bad thing? I’m a firm proponent of Dan Gillmor’s notion that your audience knows more than you do, and I imagine in many, many respects the same can be said when it comes to evaluating data. What are the pros and the cons of this kind of a relationship, though? Journalists used to be the sole gate keeper to this kind of information, and while it’s wonderfully empowering to the individual – and I’d be the first to extol the benefits of that – is there a risk that this data can be seized upon by rivals, I suppose, and you loose your scoop? Is that important?

Sharona Coutts

Some government departments are “operating as if the freedom of information act was never amended”, says Sharona Coutts.

There’s a couple of points in there and they’re all interesting. The first thing I’d say is that a lot of this is experimentation. We’re all learning, and we’ll constantly get better, which is exciting. When it comes to distributive reporting there are enormous upsides, and not just when it comes to data, but generally. The Arab Spring was a classic example of that. The power of people reporting, coming from people on the ground, who live there, who were really personally affected by what was going on. Especially because in some places it was very, very dangerous and difficult for reporters to get in there – it added a lot of power to it. It also had risks because it was very hard to verify reports, and that’s the thing that really distinguishes professional journalists from citizen journalists, isn’t it, when you think about it? Verification. When we get things wrong, that jeopardises our reputation, and that’s really what we have to work by. There’s a lot riding on journalists checking facts, verifying them, and making sure what we write is true, accurate and fair. I’m not saying most people who are involved in an event are not genuinely seeing what they say they’re seeing but they might be seeing part of it, they might have genuinely but very, very strongly held political views which may influence the way in which they report something. So, that’s different. I think part of the value that journalists can add in those situations is by trying to verify the things that we’re hearing from people on the ground. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s very hard, especially in a rapidly changing situation like what we saw in Tahrir Square. Those are the pluses and minuses, I think, of distributive reporting. As for the issue of exclusivity, I’ve been challenged on this before. I said at Hacks/Hackers that you have to be careful when you’re using certain tools, like Google Fusion, whether you’re making that data public. Somebody pulled me up and said isn’t that the issue with you people? I was calling for greater transparency but when you hoard it for yourself, I’m not going to pretend that part of that isn’t for exclusivity. But is it permanent exclusivity? At ProPublica, yes, you work on the data in- house first. You want to break the news but once you’ve done it, you just give it out. It’s not like you hoard it and sit on it and won’t give it to anyone. So, it depends on whether or not you think you need to share everything that you get the second you get it. I don’t agree with that. The other very important reason I don’t agree with that goes back to what I was saying earlier, and that is data is just like any other source: it can be wrong, incomplete; it can lie, it can be misunderstood. As part of a journalist’s responsibility, you especially need to take that data set and assess it very carefully. We spend a lot of time cleaning up data. Checking for obvious errors, for example, this school thinks it has 3 million students, when in fact in that entire state there’s only 500,000 students. That’s not right. That doesn’t serve anyone to put something clearly wrong out there. What I do think, and it’s a case I’m going to be making increasingly, as we approach the mandatory review of the performance of Australia’s FOI act is that under our act, an agency that releases a document under freedom of information must publish that document on their own website, in their FOI log. I believe it’s not longer than two weeks later that they make it, they release that to the party that requested that information. I know a lot of journalists hate that. They really hate it. Yet it’s hard for an organisation – at ProPublica, we had a reputation for doing things extraordinarily well. But it’s hard to do things as vigorously and as wonderfully as they do, very quickly. There is a trade off there. So, that is important. But what I say is that we need an amendment to remove fee provisions for news organisations when it comes to freedom of information because I personally don’t have a problem, on balance, with it facing making it public – that’s a good thing. What I do have a problem with is imposing a cost on one party, usually journalists, because it makes it almost impossible to make that case to your editor. Let’s spend $4,000 getting these documents that are then going to be released immediately to the rest of the world before we can write our stories. That’s an impossibility. However, if there was no fee involved, then you get the document – it takes a lot of work to do a request, but fine, invest that time, that’s what we’re paid to do – and then you get it and you do the best you can before it before it goes live, or even after it goes live. You’re still going to have a head start. It’s that prohibitive cost element that I think needs to go for news organisations.

Do you hold much hope that will be a reality one day?

I don’t hold much but I hold enough to try to do it. It’s the right thing to do. Government departments are being totally stupid when they say we need to charge journalists more because look at this, we only recoup one to two percent of our actual costs. That goes back to what I was saying before, which is no, you’re drawing exactly the wrong conclusion. What that says is you are not going to ever recoup the costs. You’re probably incurring a lot of those costs in arguing about costs. So, stop doing that. That reduces internal costs. Also, change your presumption to just be in accordance with the act. You should be releasing the information where you can. The only reason for imposing costs, it seems clear to me, is to be an inhibition to journalists requesting information. Because, by the way, it’s important to think about where this happens in the process. For some investigations I’d already spent months haggling with people who, every time I would haggle with them under the act, they’d have to go away and assess things. That’s all work. Months of work before we even agree on costs. It’s preposterous. If you took that out of the equation, we’d actually be able to have a conversation about information that can make a difference to the Australian public.

I think it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that a lot of people lay emphasis on the speed and responsiveness of online journalism, but don’t take into account that investigative journalism often means grappling with this legal edifice.

This is the other thing. I hear from time to time in Australia – I think it’s good but it also worries me. There’s a notion amongst people who work, or are interested in and are trying to work in this field, that the data is out there. It is and it isn’t. There’s some data that is out there; there’s a lot that is not. It exists in government departments but they are hanging onto it. Even the data that’s out there, it might be in a form that’s rarely useful. It would take a huge amount of work to get it into a form that’s usable. I believe it’s worth it but you have to know that it’s going to take time. Look at this great project that the Sydney Morning Herald just did with politician’s perks. Now, I’ve done a bit of that work myself, so I know what they would have had to do. What I’m guessing they had to do would have been that they had to get the PDFs that are put up on the Senate and House website, and then they used university students to help them go through those, and then they had to set up their own spreadsheets and manually enter those things because otherwise they’re just handwritten or in a standard form, and it’s very difficult to scrape that. That took a reasonable amount of manpower to get that done. So it’s out there but it’s not as if you’re sitting at your desk and you go, oh, I’d like a database of all politicians’ perks. Bloop! And it’s right there. For one person, that would have taken a couple of weeks of work at least, and that’s before you’ve even then built the app that you can display the information in.

I’ve had a look at that database and I, for one, hope that journalists everywhere do more with that kind of stuff. Just with the time we’ve got left, I’m interested in your thoughts on the current lay of the media landscape. What do you think are the challenges faced by media organisations and newsrooms as they embrace the notion of being “digital first”. Specifically, I’m keen to know how significant a role you think data driven journalism should be within this strategy?

I think it’s a case of different stokes for different folks. I don’t think that would make much sense for an organisation such as Fairfax, which is a general newspaper. I’m really happy to see that it’s part of the mix. But I think you’re going to have more specialised places like The Global Mail that will probably be doing more of that as a percentage of what we do. When people ask what’s the solution to the fact that the business model that sustained journalism remarkably steady for five decades is dead – not that it’s dying, that it’s dead – I say there is no single solution, there are many. That’s what we need. We need a diversity of solutions. We need lots of different ways of doing things. I worked at ProPublica and now at The Global Mail, both of which are small, non-profit, philanthropically funded, independent news organisations. But that’s only one solution, I’m not saying that’s the only way to do this. You have moves to more subscription based models. You have other operations like The Washington Post. I’d need to check this, but for years it hasn’t been profitable – just the newspaper. But they do own the international education company, Kaplan, which has been extremely profitable – and there have been some problems with that. The point being is that essentially they’ve got a company structure that subsidises their news gathering and reporting operation, and the news gathering and publication operation of The Washington Post has a brand that adds a lot of value to Kaplan. There’s a symbiosis. It’s a subsidy arrangement for news. There’s a lot of other examples of that sort of thing as well. And, of course, there are some smaller sites that are surviving with advertising. There’s a proliferation of ideas but I don’t think that data journalism is going to be appropriate for everyone. I just think that for those who want to do it, it can be extremely powerful, and I think that it’s one tool at the disposal of people who want to do accountability journalism, which I think it very important.

Part of what I’m driving at, I suppose, is a question of skill sets. What kind of skills should emerging journalists embrace to “future proof” their role in the industry? What should they be trying to learn at university or in their own time? I would hazard to guess that significant component of journalism in the future could be broadly construed as digital journalism. If they are going to be digital journalists, does it follow that they’re going to be a data journalist in some way, shape or form?

Not at all. This is just the latest incarnation in the talk about the need to be multi-skilled. At lot of us would remember how five or ten years ago, every journalist had to be able to do audio, shoot video, edit, write, do some basic HTML – all that sort of stuff. I think that’s somewhat true, but I have worked in newsrooms where that’s certainly not the case and, in fact, management would have thought it was really a waste of time to have their most accomplished investigative journalist sitting in front of a computer and trying to learn how to do video editing. Why? Because there are young people who can do the video editing, or there are other people who can do the video editing much better and faster. It’s a better use of time. So, there is still specialisation. What I’ve said is that you need to be fundamentally literate in all of those forms, in order to be able to talk to the specialists. So, I can shoot a bit of video and edit a bit of video. Would I necessarily try and do all of that on a really important story? Probably not at the moment. I’m not ruling it out in the future but at the moment what I can do is explain to someone what I have in mind, how I see it happening, what the shot would look like – that kind of thing. I think the same is true for data journalism. There are going to be people who really can get in and do the hardcore mathematical and statistical analysis competently and on their own. There are also going to be people who can code and create the apps, which is a whole other discipline. Does every journalist need to be able to do that? No, but what I do think is that I would encourage anyone contemplating a career in journalism to do basic statistics and to be able to understand basic numbers. The innumerates will be left behind. The other thing I always say is that – I know this is not what people studying journalism want to hear – but I think often the best way to come to journalism is with an area of expertise. You can be a journalist without a journalism degree. A lot about journalism is more like a trade.

It’s important, in some instances, to have had another life before practising journalism, is that what you mean? Another walk in life, another industry background, a particular body of expertise before they make the transition to journalism?

I’ve hired interns, and they’re not permanent positions, so I’ve had occasion to consider the kind of people I’d like to hire as an intern. I’d love to have a psychology student as my journalism intern. A law student, an engineering student, a mathematics major. I’m not ruling out journalism students but if I think about somebody who could really bolster what I do, it’s going to be somebody that has a skill set that I don’t have. I think that’s really useful. That said, there’s a lot of absolutely brilliant journalists who don’t have university education at all, and they’re packing unbelievable raw talent and drive, and they’re smart and hard working. They are some of the best in the business.

Last question. Without giving away too much, what are you working on at The Global Mail at the moment – and when can we head to the site to read about it?

Well, I’ve got a couple of things coming up. When is this going to be published or broadcast?

As soon as possible. I’ll type it up and publish it on Monday morning evening.

I talked recently about new forms of storytelling for the web, like charticles and listicles – that sort of thing. I’m working on a listicle about a certain controversial Premier and you’ll be able to read that. Other than that, I’ve got a few longer term projects going. I’m still looking into things like coal seam gas but I can’t really say much more at this point. You’ll have to check back and take a look.

We wait with bated breath. Sharona, thank you so much for your time.

It’s an absolute pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.


As part of this blog post I sought comment from the office of the Hon. Mark Butler MP,  Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Minister for Social Inclusion, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Mental Health Reform. A spokesperson provided the following statement: 

The Minister and Department comply with the FOI Act when considering a request for information.

In relation to this specific example, The Global Mail’s request would have covered more than 1200 documents, many of which relate to assessments of the care needs of individual residents.

As such, they are likely to be ‘protected information’ under the Aged Care Act 1997 and would therefore be exempt from disclosure under section 38 of the Freedom of Information Act 1982.

Ms Coutts has appeal rights in respect of the decision and was notified of these rights on 28 August 2012.

Since the introduction of the Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI) in 2008 the Department has regularly communicated claiming data and outcomes of the ACFI Review Program to the sector and published results on the health website.

The Minister has expressed concern about the aggressive behaviour of some consultants and providers seeking to maximise profits under the Aged Care Funding Instrument.

That is one of the reasons the claiming process was tightened in July to ensure that funds provided to aged care businesses accurately reflect the care needs of residents.

Most providers do the right thing by claiming appropriately and providing good quality services which they are paid to do, however there appear to be a number who are not claiming in the way that they should.

The ACFI Review Program has continually refined its risk based approach to targeting aged care services that may be at high risk of incorrect claiming. Through this work some very high rates of incorrect claiming have been identified for some providers.

The Department has undertaken additional reviews to correct these claims and has taken further action under the Aged Care Act 1997 against some providers.

Where there are allegations of fraud against specific nursing homes, the matter would be referred to the authorities for investigation.

The Minister for Mental Health and Ageing and the Department are required to comply with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 when considering a request for a release of information.

Claims for care funding made by aged care providers are based on the assessed care needs of each resident in an aged care home.

The Department identified that the request from the Global Mail would have covered more than 1200 documents, many of which relate to assessments of the care needs of individual residents.

As such, they are likely to be ‘protected information’ under the Aged Care Act 1997 and would therefore be exempt from disclosure under section 38 of the Freedom of Information Act 1982.

The Aged Care Act 1997 protects information acquired by the Department under or for the purposes of that Act  by making disclosure of ‘protected information’ a criminal offence.

Ms Coutts has appeal rights in respect of the decision to impose the charge to the AAT and the Australian Information Commissioner.  She was notified of these rights on 28 August 2012 in the letter informing her of the outcome of the review of the charges decision.

The Department audits up to 20,000 claims for care funding made by approved providers annually. Since the introduction of the Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI) in 2008 the Department has regularly communicated claiming data and outcomes of the ACFI Review Program to the sector and published results on the health website.

5 comments

  1. Sharona Coutts · · Reply

    Hey readers, I just wanted to point out that the department is obfuscating yet again. In this response, they cite privacy provisions. Let’s be clear: the reality is the department has told me I could have the documents, providing I pay hundreds of dollars. They will probably redact anything useful from the documents once I’ve paid that money, but to say that privacy is linked to charging this fee, is just misleading.

    This is typical nonsense from them. They still won’t come clean about who has been defrauding you, the taxpayer, by taking advantage of vulnerable elderly nursing home residents. If they have nothing to hide, they should hand over the information, or at least speak honestly and openly about it.

    To Mark Butler: your response implies that you think we should just trust you to take care of this. Well, first of all: the purpose of Freedom of Information legislation is to ensure that we, in a democracy, are able to keep tabs of what our elected officials do on our behalf. That sort of “just trust me” attitude doesn’t cut it, and is in violation with the intent of the act. Secondly, it’s been months now since we first reported on this problem, and we still haven’t got any straight-forward answers from you about who has been held accountable. Not good enough.

  2. Hi John, A brilliant interview and Sharona is terrific. Again, you’ve come up with another interviewee who inspires me to learn more about her area of expertise — data (I never thought I’d say that!). Also, it was very helpful of her (and you) to add links to various data bases, and to tell us the tale of the Department of Health and Ageing, who wants to keep their data secret. What have they got to hide, I wonder. I dips me lid to Sharona, and my next stop is the Global Mail website! Thank you. Cheers, Tom

  3. […] Media and Digital News Director at Sky News Australia John Bergin has a fascinating interview with Sharona Coutts, who is currently The Global Mail’s investigations editor, about data […]

  4. Reblogged this on PostPrint and commented:
    As the print news industry wanes could data-driven journalism create a new way for investigative reporters to be relevant to society in the digital age?

  5. […] journalist Sharona Coutts works on an investigative unit for the Global Mail and says the Australian Government once […]

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