Public information and the OIA


In December, the chief ombudsman announced a review of the Official Information Act 1982 practices in the public sector.

Twelve government agencies have been selected for a formal review, while a further 63 agencies and all 27 ministers’ offices have been asked to complete a two-part survey covering all aspects of OIA practice.

Input from current and former public servants, opposition parties, journalists, academic commentators and other users of the OIA will also be sought. The ombudsman’s office is will invite public input to the review which will be announced shortly.

 

A systemic issue or isolated incidences?

The ombudsman’s office has had anecdotal reports that media and others have encountered a variety of approaches to circumventing OIA requests, particularly during last year’s election period. During that time, OIA practices came under heightened scrutiny as allegations surfaced that some OIA requests had been stonewalled with at least one of these allegations substantiated through an independent inquiry.

As chief ombudsman Beverley Wakem notes, “Circumvention and delays in the OIA have the potential to erode public confidence in the effective operation of the OIA throughout the core public sector.”

At least some delays seem to be politically motivated with the prime minister acknowledging to the media last year that some official information was held up to the 20-day deadline if “that’s in our best interest to do that”.

Political involvement in how the OIA has been used may have crossed political lines over the years, as New Zealand Herald reporter David Fisher told an audience of public officials last year, “The shift really began after the 2005 election, when Helen Clark's third term threatened to get away from her. I believe what happened then perverted all that has come since, when it comes to media and the public service.”

National secretary Richard Wagstaff says that any politicisation of the OIA is unacceptable.

“When ministers use the OIA for their own purposes it has an untenable impact on the overall culture within the public service. It also means that individual public servants can be put in extremely vulnerable positions in terms of doing the right thing and worrying about their job,” he says.

In discussing the review in December, Beverley Wakem told Radio New Zealand the aim is to assess the quality and integrity of OIA practice across the public sector and to address any issues that are found.

“The review will come forward with, I hope, some key trends, keys sins of omission that we can do something about. And thereafter, I propose that the office will then on a regular basis audit performance in these matters against a standard.”

 

What’s next?

The review began in December 2014 with responses to the survey due in the early part of 2015. The review and stakeholder engagement will follow in the first half of 2015. The chief ombudsman’s findings and recommendations will then be publicly reported.

 

Have your say

The PSA will be contributing to the review and encourages all our members to have their say on this important issue. We will be working with the ombudsman’s office to keep you updated on the public engagement period, as well as the findings of the review. 

 

Agencies selected for the formal review

  • Accident Compensation Corporation
  • Department of Corrections
  • Ministry of Education
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • Ministry of Health
  • Ministry of Justice
  • New Zealand Customs Service
  • New Zealand Defence Force
  • New Zealand Transport Agency
  • Ministry of Social Development
  • Ministry of Transport
  • State Services Commission

 

Criteria used to select agencies for the formal review

  • Size of agency (FTEs)
  • Number of OIA requests received per year (where data exists)
  • Number of OIA complaints to the ombudsman
  • Number of OIA delay complaints upheld by the ombudsman
  • Length of time taken to respond to OIAs (where data exists)
  • Broad coverage of the core public sector
  • Inclusion of at least one agency that has been cited for embodying good OIA practice, as well as those cited for poor practice

 

The OIA and the quest for no surprises

Later this year, New Zealand Herald journalist David Fisher will be one of our speakers for the PSA’s 2015 In the thick of it series to discuss his perspectives on the OIA. Below are excerpts from a speech he gave last year on this issue. The full speech is available at the New Zealand Herald’s website.

The difference between when I started 25 years ago and now is astounding when it comes to dealing with the public service. When I started as a journalist, if I was writing a story which in any way touched on the public's interaction with government, I would pick up the phone and ring an official. It really was that easy.

The "no surprises" policy had been a feature of coalition agreements since 1996, and part of the SOE model. It did what it said on the box – meant there would be no surprises for the government. Initially, it was a safety valve put into an agreement – a chance for someone to ask, is it a good idea to sell half of Transpower without telling the Prime Minister. Big things. Really big.

But before long, it crept out of SOEs and political agreements and spread its grip through the public service.

Ministers realised they had a device through which they could reduce the surprises they suffered. And, as it went on, the surprises ministers no longer wanted to experience became greater in number and smaller in significance.

Increasingly, it placed on the public service a political imperative which it had never had to shoulder. It had to think about what it might be that would surprise a minister. Decisions were made with the minister's discomfort in mind. Decisions were being made which were political in nature.

I'll tell you an exception, or an example of doing it right – the Police.  It is not an exception which governs the entire agency, because there's always headquarters. But with so many public facing staff, there is an acceptance staff will speak. Trying to stop them all from speaking on matters in which they are involved would be like trying to catch rain drops.

It's openness, honesty and having the courage to have back your staff on the job. It's not always possible when the Beehive comes calling.

It is 30 years since the OIA began working in practice, 32 years since it was passed. There is so much that we ask for which is standard, it's hard to understand why it is not classified as people go. Surely after 30 years of dealing with largely the same type of information, it should be known what can be withheld and what can be released.

There should be no surprises, for anyone.

 

This article is from the March 2015 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.