By Max Rashbrooke*
Analysis - Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier's decision on Monday to investigate potential abuses of the Official Information Act (OIA) is yet another sign that all is not well when it comes to democracy in this country.
Boshier is concerned by journalists' claims that public agencies delay responding to their requests "as a bureaucratic tool to stifle the flow of information", and that when data is finally released, "it belongs in the history books rather than the headlines".
Journalists are not the only ones worried. Civil society groups are also up in arms at what they see as backsliding on transparency and openness.
For some of them, the latest straw has been the "national action plan" that ministers have put out for consultation until 12 December. The plan supposedly represents the commitment that Labour has made to the Open Government Partnership, a 77-country movement that requires member states to reduce secrecy, make themselves more accountable, and allow citizens to participate more deeply in their democracy.
As the name suggests, Open Government Partnership action plans are supposed to contain clear policies that will make a country's public processes profoundly more open. But our latest effort has been condemned by the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties (NZCCL) as "yet another in a series of weak national action plans".
The most tangible commitments, such as setting up a register of the true owners of New Zealand companies, are initiatives that were underway already but "repackaged" for the action plan. Another initiative was described by the NZCCL as "so weak as to be a joke".
At every step of the way, individuals taking part in open-government workshops suggested meaningful commitments - then found they had been watered down. NGOs asked for the government to enforce basic standards for how it consults: for instance, minimum consultation periods and the publication of all submissions received.
Instead, public agencies will be required to use a "policy community engagement tool" that has no teeth or power to enforce standards.
At workshops, individuals suggested New Zealand adopt forums that have been used overseas to profoundly change citizens' control over democratic decisions: for instance, participatory budgeting, where residents discuss and allocate a portion of local council budgets, or citizens' assemblies, where a representative group of ordinary individuals meet to examine, debate and make policy on key public issues.
Instead, the government will "identify" examples of these forums, in order to "capture lessons learnt and share these to build capability". Since some councils are already experimenting with these methods, the action plan - bizarrely - puts the government behind the pace of change that is already happening, rather than leading it.
Civil society groups also asked for a review of the 80-plus secrecy clauses in legislation that override the right to information contained in the OIA, with a view to removing as many of these clauses as possible. Instead, ministers will tighten up the guidance for agencies that are looking to insert more such clauses.
The "open government" action plan, in short, actively envisages greater secrecy in future.
These failings are all the more galling given ministers' fabled commitment to running "the most open, most transparent government that New Zealand has ever had", in the words of former minister Clare Curran. While some improvements have been made, including the publication of ministers' diaries and a greater number of Cabinet papers, these hardly represent the transformation that Curran's words seemed to promise.
Journalists report that abuses of the OIA are as bad as ever, if not worse, while Minister Andrew Little's 2020 pre-election promise to review and improve the Act was later quietly dropped.
The one spot of good news is that the latest action plan has improved fractionally from earlier drafts, and now boasts a plan to ensure that those unable to access digital public services do not miss out, as well as a commitment to embed the charter that governs the controversial algorithms increasingly used by public agencies.
NGOs, many of them left feeling burnt by the process of developing the action plan, are still hoping it can be further strengthened, either during the current consultation or by adding new commitments next year. But after years of underwhelming plans developed under both National- and Labour-led governments, some remain cynical about the value of New Zealand's membership of the Open Government Partnership - as the NZCCL's press release makes clear.
"After four failed efforts to produce action plans that provide real benefits to the public from greater openness," it reads, "the council concludes that the New Zealand government is like a person who pays for their gym membership, but then wonders why their fitness doesn't improve when they don't actually do any exercise at the gym".
*Max Rashbrooke is a research associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.