On the Ombudsman review

The ODT has an editorial on Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem’s review of the Official Information ActNo room for complacency.

Dame Beverley’s year-long investigation was undertaken after she says she became aware of growing public concern and criticism about perceived practices within government agencies in relation to the Act.

Her report (released this week) concluded most agencies are compliant most of the time, and there was no direct evidence of political interference in the release of information.

That is certainly pleasing. It adheres to our democratic principles, reflects international findings such as the Corruption Perceptions Index (which rates New Zealand the second-least corrupt country), and reinforces the goals to which we aspire as part of the international Open Government Partnership and our recent ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.

However, Dame Beverley’s report raised several red flags.

The report found greater leadership was required.

While chief executives and senior managers understood their obligations, there was little OIA training for staff, and policies for proactively releasing information were lacking.

Ministers gave ‘‘mixed messages” to departments about compliance and some Government ministers’ offices had attempted to interfere in their departments’ responses to information requests.

All of the above created a

‘‘cycle of distrust and suspicion” between the public and agencies.

The training and policy lack is concerning given the Act has been in effect for more than 30 years.

While the report found departments put ministerial officials right about their obligations and released the information, the fact influence is being exerted is worrying.

Worrying too is the possible extent of this.

Wakem has been criticised for being to weak in her role.

The public (and media) ‘‘distrust and suspicion” around transparency is certainly real, and was discussed in an editorial in this newspaper only last week.

The situation has not been helped by Prime Minister John Key’s admission the Government sometimes delays releasing information right up to the 20-day OIA deadline if it is in its interests to do so. (It is a legal requirement to release the information as soon as practicable within that time frame.)

It must be acknowledged privacy provisions and security considerations come into play when releasing some information.

Most will understand that conflict and the difficulties in obtaining the right balance.

Unacceptable, though, is the withholding of information, or delaying tactics, for political purposes.

Politicians need to be much better  at serving the interests of the people. And the Ombudsman needs to be better at ensuring this happens.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. “and policies for proactively releasing information were lacking.”

    This is the key. I think the whole process and law in this area is the wrong way around all government information should be posted to the web within 2 months of creation/collation/collection unless its specifically exempted by an OIA Ombudsman. Departments and Agencies would then need to think about classification clearly from the off and seek non disclosure under specific categories like, but not exhaustively: National Security, Current commercial sensitivity, personal privacy implications etc etc

    Reply
    • Jeeves

       /  11th December 2015

      I tend to agree- make whatever you can public.

      However- the biggest task for some who compile responses to OIAs is the fair and objective interpretation of sometimes quite complex data- never mind the fact that these days the ‘document’ or the ‘information’ does not actually exist in a compiled or calculated way. The OIA has morphed over the years from a ‘document disclosure’ process to prevent agencies burying uncomfortable truths, into an altogether more embracing power about providing total transparency.
      Now when an OIA comes in asking a question- the agency has to go and find the answer- which usually means negotiating with the requester around what they want- which usually leads to the realisation that they don’t actually know exactly what they want- so you have to provide expertise to teach them the possibilities of their curiosity.

      “How many people got arrested for serious crimes last year?”
      Ends up being:
      “How many arrests were there for offences under the crimes act with a sentencing band of more than three years?”

      Or impossible requests….
      “How many young people were hospitalised for recreational drug use?”
      “How many really dangerous criminals were released on parole last year?”
      “Is your agency busier this year than last year, and if so, by how much?”
      “How many of your staff aren’t trained up to the right level?”
      “On average, what’s the most common etc etc ….?”
      “How many young people were stabbed last year, can I have it by age and sex, and Maori too”.

      and the compiler scratches his head and goes “Hang on I’ll just ask the computer if it knows the answer to your meaningless question..”

      Reply
  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  10th December 2015

    The Herald has a strong editorial also today. I think the Ombudsman has been on a steady decline since the local government bureaucrat, Brian Elwood, was appointed. Most people now see it just as another level of bureaucracy contributing little but further delays to action.

    Reply

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