5 Mar 2019

Public service should not treat all media queries as OIA requests - Ombudsman

10:51 am on 5 March 2019

The Ombudsman is warning government departments not to use the Official Information Act as a way of dragging their feet in response to media enquiries.

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Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The National Party said there was an increasing tendency for government agencies to treat straightforward media queries as OIA requests, which then gave them 20 working days to respond.

The coalition government promised to be open and transparent - but is it any better than the previous administration?

Canvassing the RNZ newsroom the answer was a resounding 'no', with reporters saying they noticed an increase in the practice of invoking the 20-day OIA deadline.

State Services minister Chris Hipkins has responsibilities for open and transparent government, and said the public service was "too readily" using the timeframes in the Official Information Act as the "optimum timeframes, not the maximum timeframes".

Chris Hipkins, Minister of Education, State Services, and Minister Responsible for Ministerial Services

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

His expectation, he said, was that information be passed over as soon as possible.

Ombudsman Peter Boshier

Ombudsman Peter Boshier Photo: RNZ / Phil Smith

Ombudsman Peter Boshier agreed.

"For things to be delayed is not acceptable, public debate now is very current on issues and we need to enhance that and support it."

The speed of digital news meant demand for information was quite different to 10 or 15 years ago, he said.

"And I think government departments have to accept that this is the requirement of the modern era."

National's state services spokesperson Nick Smith questioned how open and transparent the coalition government actually was.

"I've been quite appalled by relatively simple enquiries, particularly in the areas of Kiwibuild, the Provincial Growth Fund, and other areas where the government is under pressure, that they are ducking and diving."

It was put to him that the former National government, in which he was a minister, was itself criticised for the way it used the OIA.

"I think there has been a distinctive change of practice, both in respect of media enquiries and also in respect of parliamentary questions", replied Dr Smith.

National MP Nick Smith on the Justice Committee

National MP Nick Smith Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Mr Hipkins acknowledged the government had set high expectations for itself.

"The more open and transparent we are, the more people see the inner workings of government and the less 'spun' and finessed some of the information is going to be - that's actually a perfectly okay thing."

Some agencies were better than others, Mr Boshier said, but all should be complying with the law.

"What I think is very, very wrong is for agencies to convert what is a straightforward request, relabel it as an Official Information request thinking that invokes the 20-day period ... that's not the law."

He said all requests are technically requests for official information but that does not automatically "turn it into something which it isn't".

A fundamental part of the Act, Mr Boshier said, was protecting the right of the public to participate in democracy.

"So if there's a live issue and we're heading towards a resolution, there's no point trying to participate democratically in the process if you don't have the information ... until months after the event."

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