Reform for Official Information act

It’s debatable whether the Official Information Act needs reforming, or if Government Ministers and officials need to be required to comply with the Act as it is. There has been creeping avoidance of complying properly with the Act over successive Governments.

Listener: Information wants to be free – why is the OIA an obstacle?

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has been blunt: the advice that ministers receive from their officials has been deliberately dumbed down, as a consequence of the Official Information Act (OIA).

Its vital contribution to our freedom and governmental accountability has, over successive administrations, been undermined by fear. Subtle and even blatant political heavying from ministers and officials’ self-protective desire not to cause trouble have led state agencies to increasingly refrain from offering potentially contentious advice, because they know it will become public and embarrass them and/or their minister.

Another growing trend has been deliberately to delay compliance with an OIA request, or flat out deny it.

Boshier has reversed the latter trend in his two years in the role, partly by making it clear he will name and shame those who fail to co-operate in good faith with the OIA’s processes. But he’s right to say we need new leadership to restore the Act to full efficacy and public respect. In his briefing to the incoming Government, he has usefully clarified the law as it stands, and as he believes officials should adhere to it.

That suggests that the Act may be sufficient as it is as long as it is complied with.

The headline clarification is a presumption that all official information will be released, and released in a timely manner, unless there are special reasons not to.

A further one is that officials asked to release something under the OIA must not then ask their ministers whether they may do so. It is their obligation to release it unless exempted, and they are only duty-bound to tell ministers to avoid surprises.

Ministers shouldn’t be involved in decisions on what should be a process, not a choice.

Boshier is on the record as noting a culture of transparent Government has to start with strong leadership.

Some have called for the Ombudsman’s office to have stronger powers of coercion, including making serious non-compliance an imprisonable offence. But a better buttress to information freedom would be to automate Boshier’s newly elucidated presumption that all information can be released unless it would cause a serious mischief.

Why not a system where, by default, all background papers to a governmental decision are released automatically? This could perhaps happen after early consultations, but before legislative proposals are finalised. Rather than relying on people to request information, why not put the onus on a department or minister to seek, via the Ombudsman, permission not to release it?

It is, after all, our information.

The OIA came up in Parliament yesterday, with Brett Hudson questioning the Minister of Justice Andrew Little. Transcript (with bickering and diversion edited out):

9. BRETT HUDSON (National) to the Minister of Justice: What reform is he planning to make to the Official Information Act 1982?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE (Minister of Justice): The Act is almost 35 years old, and the public’s expectations about access to official information are greater now than ever before…the Official Information Act is the responsibility of the Minister of Justice. As stated in the Speech from the Throne, this Government will foster a more open and democratic society—

Brett Hudson: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I just note that the Minister in his response claimed that the Act was under the responsibility of the Minister of Justice. I refer that Minister, and your good self, to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) website, which is very clear in the delegations for the Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government) that all matters of official information and the Official Information Act are under the delegations for that Minister.

Mr SPEAKER: And I’m going to deal with that. It was a matter that was referred to because it was a question about where the question was going. The Act is administered by the Minister of Justice.

Brett Hudson: Under his planned reform, will it be the norm for the Chief Ombudsman to have to make a recommendation in order for documents to be released?

Hon ANDREW LITTLE: The approach that this Government has taken to official information is to look to the report of the Law Commission in 2012, which the previous Government did nothing about; the recommendations of the Chief Ombudsman in 2015, which the previous Government did nothing about; and to look to questions of attitude and behaviour, because that is the way we will change the effectiveness of the Official Information Act.

So will Little, Ardern and the government walk the walk and “to look to questions of attitude and behaviour, because that is the way we will change the effectiveness of the Official Information Act”, because the OIA ball is in their court.

 

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20 Comments

  1. Blazer

     /  December 8, 2017

    ‘the O.I.A ball is in their court’….after 9 years of the Natz gaming it and obsfucation at every turn,it is now Labours responsibility to fix it and abide by it in the spirit…intended…bloody typical.

    Reply
    • Still sounding like the Opposition. Have Labour no truck with the “p!$$ or get off the pot” analogy.

      Reply
    • It’s fairly simple really – national gamed the OIA and abused it and have been widely criticised for that.

      Ardern, Labour and the current Government said they would do much better so yes, it is their responsibility to walk the walk.

      It’s pathetic to avoid responsibility and abuse the democratic system because someone else did in the past. Up until now the problem has been a gradual deterioration. Ardern said she would fix it, so she should.

      Reply
      • Blazer

         /  December 8, 2017

        I hope she takes her time about it.National so easily excused and forgiven for plumbing new depths in dirty politics and…deceptive..practice.

        Reply
        • Whataboutism won’t cut the mustard blazer, especially when Ms Ardern and various cabinet members made such a song and dance about transparency

          Reply
        • That’s a petty and stupid approach – and is a reason why democratic standards keeping slipping, with each government blaming the last and then plumbing deeper depths.

          Reply
          • Blazer

             /  December 8, 2017

            nothing wrong with a taste of your own..medicine.

            Reply
            • High Flying Duck

               /  December 8, 2017

              National probably thought the same after the Clark / Cullen Govt set a new bar for obfuscation and dissembling.
              As PG said, it is unhelpful and leads to an erosion of good governance and oversight.
              National, to its credit at least legislated significantly more openness and transparency when first elected. They then proceeded to go downhill over the second and third terms.
              This Government has not even put up a pretence and have simply stonewalled from day one.

            • robertguyton

               /  December 8, 2017

              I guess the Opposition is feeling very frustrated, poor mice!

            • Gezza

               /  December 8, 2017

              Not my experience, HFD. In my department, under The Clark Administration, answering Official Information Act & Privacy Act requests promptly & as fully as possible was a priority. It was a huge devourerer of resources, however, especially the OI Act requests, & one for which we were not suitably additionally resourced as the numbers of requests grew.

              Material information sometimes needed to be redacted for various legitimate reasons, & it was potentially dangerous to one’s career prospects to miss such items.

              Paid advisers in Clark’s Ministers’ Offices also needed to be heeded where they were concerned about potentially adverse political impacts of some material intended to be released – but on occasions they were overruled as there was no legitimate legal justification for withholding the additional information they wanted redacted.

        • robertguyton

           /  December 8, 2017

          Agreed. No need to rush. Those toughies in the Opposition front benches will juist have to grin and bear it. Jacinda should take her own sweet time to sort the ugly mess National created, after all, it’s Christmas soon and a time for relaxation and, traveller, goodwill 🙂

          Reply
          • Kitty Catkin

             /  December 8, 2017

            Poor mice ?

            There can never be complete transparency from any government, surely-there are things that must be kept secret for various reasons, like national security.

            Reply
  2. I’d be feeling frustrated with such gross incompetence and filibustering from a GOVERNMENT

    Reply
    • robertguyton

       /  December 8, 2017

      [Deleted personal insult – PG]

      Reply
    • Blazer

       /  December 8, 2017

      now you know how people felt…for 9 years.

      Reply
    • High Flying Duck

       /  December 8, 2017

      Yes, the sight of a new Government filibustering their own legislation because they aren’t prepared is incompetence writ large.
      And after having wasted so much parliamentary time they are going to put the house under urgency.
      I don’t know what’s sadder. The state of the government, or the contortions Blaze and Robert are putting themselves through to try and justify it.

      Reply

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