Transparency trashed, Official Information Act plans kept secret

The Official Information Act is supposed to enable public access to Government information. It is supposed to improve transparency.

So it is alarming that discussions on a review of the OIA are being kept secret, and are limited to some unnamed people – referred to as “a select group of chosen insiders”.

No Tight Turn: The government’s secret OIA plans

Back in September, when the government announced plans to increase proactive release of official information, we learned by accident that they were also considering another review of the OIA, and “intend[ed] to carry out targeted engagement to inform a decision on whether to progress a formal review”. As someone interested in OIA reform, I was naturally curious about this, so I sent an OIA off to Justice Minister Andrew Little seeking information about the proposal. I finally got the response back on Friday, after a month-long extension for “consultation”. Unfortunately, its not very informative.

You can read the released documents here. As is obvious, all interesting information about the proposal has been redacted. All their specific proposals for reform are secret, as is practically everyone they plan to consult in their “targeted engagement”. People with specific expertise in the law? Secret. Bloggers and commentators? Also secret. They do list some media organisations, and the members of the OGP Expert Advisory Group, but everyone else is secret.

Which is outrageous when you think about it.

It looks outrageous to me.

The OIA is quasi-constitutional legislation, something that belongs to (and affects) all of us. But rather than a full public consultation, they plan to privilege some voices over others, presenting their select secret proposals to a select secret group, then presenting the stovepiped results to us as a fait accompli. And they kept this entire process secret as well: they decided it all back in May, but never announced anything. The only reason we know about it at all is because of a passing reference in another document. Whether these are the actions of a government committed to transparency, accountability, and participation is left as an exercise for the reader.

We deserve better than this. Its not just politicians, journalists and trouble-making bloggers who use the OIA, but all of us. Steven Price’s 2005 study of the OIA contained an extensive list of examples of how ordinary citizens use the Act, and summed it up as “the stuff of democracy”.

According to the Ombudsman’s 2017-18 annual report, individuals made three times as many OIA complaints as journalists, and its 5.5 times as many when you look at the LGOIMA. In short, it’s our Act, not theirs. And any non-trivial changes to it require publicly consulting all of us, not just a select group of chosen insiders.

From Reddit:

As some of you like to point out, I don’t comment often here. I’ll make an exception today in order to endorse this post by No Right Turn, who is something of an authority on OIA issues.

Regardless of your political views, the Official Information Act is an incredibly important tool to hold those in power to account. It’s also one of the strongest freedom of information laws in the world.

Any changes to the OIA need to be taken seriously.

So how can we  demand inclusion in this review of the OIA?

Jacinda Ardern, in a speech at Auckland University of Technology, outlined 12 priorities “looking 30 years ahead, not just three”, which included:

  • transparent, transformative and compassionate government;

Bryce Edwards (1 News september 2017):

“Stylistically it was brilliant but it was fairly hollow in terms of substance,”

This seems to be a repeating theme with Ardern.

Under her leadership the only transformation in transparency appears to be towards more secrecy, and the review of the OIA suggests she is doing the opposite of what her hype has promised.

Disgraceful Key admission on OIA delays

John Key has admitted delaying the release of official information as long as possible if the Government thinks it’s in it’s interests to do so. This is very disappointing.

Radio New Zealand reports PM admits using delaying tactics.

Prime Minister John Key has admitted the Government sometimes delays releasing official information right up to the deadline if it is in its best interest to do so.

Legally, it must respond to requests as soon as reasonably possible.

…ministers and government departments must respond to a request as soon as reasonably possible and no later than 20 working days.

The principal of deliberate delays is bad enough, that it is flaunting clear legal and moral requirements is disgraceful.

Mr Key has always maintained that when it comes to requests for official information, his ministers act within the law.

But he has now revealed a strategy which appears at odds with that.

“Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that’s in our best interest to do that,” he said.

It appears to be much worse than delaying releases up to 20 working days.

Mr Key’s admission comes just days after the release of official advice on child poverty which Radio New Zealand requested 17 months ago.

That sort of delay is a huge concern. The public deserves much better than this from Government (and from Key and National).

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem said they were not allowed to delay right up to that 20-day deadline for political purposes.

“It’s pretty clear. It couldn’t be much clearer than that… As soon as you have made a decision as to whether you’re going to respond to the request or how you’re going to respond to it, you ought to convey that.”

However, there are no sanctions for deliberately delaying the release of official information.

There shouldn’t need to be sanctions, the public should be able to expect that Government will comply with the law – and be willingly open and transparent.

She stressed she had not heard of ministers delaying responses within the 20-day timeframe but said it would be hard to prove.

“That’s the sort of thing that I expect we’ll pick up as we consult. And we’ll be consulting widely, including media, so that we can identify any blatant or egregious attempts to dodge responsibility, but… I’m not aware of any of that sort of thing going on at all.”

Dame Beverley said her review would not be a witch hunt but would look into agencies’ practices and highlight any misinterpretations or difficulties.

Highlighting “misinterpretations or difficulties” might be worthwhile.

But it’s not good enough. The public deserves better.

I think we should get a genuine assurance from John Key that his Government will fully and willingly comply with the clear intent of the Official Information Act.

If he doesn’t assure us – and demonstrate that he’s serious in practice – then this third term Government will be burdened by suspicions of being cynical, manipulative and abusive of laws that are there to promote the public good.