21 Feb 2016

Govt pays lip-service to transparency, says report

7:42 am on 21 February 2016

The Government is doing a poor job of meeting its international commitments to transparency, a new report has found.

Clampdown on whistleblowers of Nauru and Manus camps

Photo: Supplied

New Zealand is among 69 countries to have signed up to the Open Government Partnership, which requires them to make action plans for improving transparency and accountability.

However, an independent review of progress in the first year has found New Zealand's action plan largely consisted of "retrofitting" programmes that were already underway and did little to meet its goals.

The report's writer, Wellington barrister and law lecturer Steven Price, said many people were disappointed with the action plan.

"They were picking the low-hanging fruit - or the fruit that's already fallen off the tree - and turned it into an action plan," he said.

"What the government was supposed to do - what it had promised to do - was to stretch existing government practice and do things better or faster in terms of opening up government and making it more accountable and opening up public participation in government processes".

He said most notably, the action plan completely failed to address any of the problems around the Official Information Act identified by the Law Commission.

Mr Price said the next action plan would be a good place to tackle these and other controversial issues, such as the practice of charging for Official Information Act requests and the delays highlighted by the Ombudsman's office.

And another - last year's High Court ruling that the Government's response to requests for information about the Trans Pacific Partnership was unlawful.

He said he was also disturbed by how many people commented that civil servants and others receiving state funding - including scientists - were "afraid to speak out" on anything that might reflect poorly on the Government.

"You've got people who are afraid to speak out in public debate in ways that could be useful to civil society but may be uncongenial to the Government. Many people saw this as a big problem."

Some saw the Government's "no surprises" policy as interfering with public servants' ability to provide independent advice.

The law on Protected Disclosures - commonly known as the Whistleblowers' Act - was good as far as it went, but it was limited, he said.

For instance, there was no guarantee that the whistleblower's identity would be protected and it was really only about blowing the whistle within an organisation, not in public or to the media.

"It applies to 'serious wrongdoing' - but if you're worried about waste or negligence in a government department, you might wonder if you should be using this act."

Mr Price said overall, public consultation on the action plan was limited and those who did get a chance to have their say complained their feedback was ignored and it felt like "a box-ticking exercise".

He called on the Government to increase public consultation and be "more ambitious" in its next action plan, which is due in June.

Five key areas identified by stakeholders in report:

  • Reform of official information laws
  • Creation of public consultation guidelines for new bills, regulations and policies
  • Regular independent "state of the nation" reporting on social policy and the environment
  • A clear cross-government policy to allow public servants and those receiving public funds to speak out on matters of public interest without facing any form of retaliation
  • Political party funding reform to increase transparency around donations and Parliamentary revenues.

Otago University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards, a director of Transparency International, said the report was "a black mark" against New Zealand.

"When it comes to Official Information Act, the Government is very wary of making any reforms that might make the OIA work better. And that's just generally what governments do, whether they are Labour, National or otherwise. They're not particularly keen on processes that will make them vulnerable to criticism."

However, transparency was crucial to democracy because it allowed the public to see how decisions were made and prevented corruption, Dr Edwards said.

The State Services Commission - the lead agency for the initiative - said New Zealand was "committed to open and responsive government".

"We will consider the draft review and make submissions as required," a spokesman said.

The State Services Minister Paula Bennett was not available for interview last night.

The draft report is open for comment until 2 March and comments received will be published alongside the final version.

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