28 Sep 2022

Government OIA response processes fuelling growing mistrust - Ombudsman

3:43 pm on 28 September 2022
No caption

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

A report by Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has found multiple examples of government agencies breaching the Official Information Act (OIA).

Boshier said the core public service was increasingly transparent and open but the processes adopted by some agencies had "little or nothing to do with the law itself".

The Ready or Not? report, a follow up to Not a Game of Hide and Seek by Boshier's predecessor found gaps in all 12 agencies in record keeping and information management, with several breaching the Public Records Act.

In a statement, Boshier said agencies' communications teams set up to manage OIA requests appeared to be under the "widespread misapprehension" that many requests from media did not fall under the OIA, and applying the law was difficult or complicated.

"These perceptions are false," he said.

"I am growing increasingly concerned about the experiences journalists are reporting and the apparent dismissal by some agency media teams of the OIA legislation which underpins their work.

"This misconception about journalists' queries is fuelling the growing mistrust within news organisations about the way agencies are managing requests for information. It is also leading to the view that agencies are using the OIA to undermine transparency."

Many were failing to provide a reason when refusing an information request, or inform the requester of their right to complain to the ombudsman, Boshier said.

"I consider that media teams require a fundamental cultural change.

"The requirements under the OIA when refusing a request are not onerous and do not need to impede efficient handling of media information requests. Indeed, I have found that the additional steps agency OIA Teams often go through are entirely self-imposed-created by the agency and not a requirement of the OIA itself."

He believed some agencies were not paying attention, nor giving OIA requests the time and resources they required.

"If [a request for information is] not met, what often then happens is that it's put into a formal protracted OIA track and often the information isn't supplied until the 20 days is expired. Now that's the maximum under the Act, not the optimum and there's no seeming halfway house of agencies having the resources and the will to getting on doing this as quickly as they should," Boshier told Checkpoint.

This report did find there were some improvements since the last report, and agencies did well on releasing information over the pandemic, when some might have expected for there to be less transparency, he said.

OIAs were important to the public as well because it helped them understand the reasons behind decisions made, he said.

"The reason that New Zealand features as number one [in] transparency in the world is because we do try and we endeavour to give explanations, as the government did during Covid.

"When though that falls by the wayside, and people begin to lose trust in the freedom of information flow, that's when the rot starts to set in in trust and transparency, that's why it's so important."

The report mentioned some ministers were also made aware a few days ahead of information being released. Boshier said this was problematic because the Act required a decision on OIAs to be made, communicated, and acted on as soon as possible.

"It begins to get very convoluted and unclear when a decision is made on your request, and that's conveyed to the minister days before it's conveyed to you. There's the temptation to think something is going on, being talked about and being put in a position so as to make it look good."

His report also found training on the OIA was a vulnerability for many agencies, and suggested improvements for nine of the 12 agencies surveyed.

They should also ensure all published or released information was optimised in line with standards to ensure they were accessible by all users, including those with disabilities.

A total of 110 agencies, departments and Crown entities are subject to the OIA.

In a written response, Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins highlighted the Ombudsman's finding that the public service was increasingly transparent and open, and had vastly improved in the five years since the previous report, which he attributed to the government's leadership.

"Agencies are increasingly taking the initiative and proactively releasing information to the public as part of their normal business practice," he said.

"We have taken a lead on proactive release, including making Cabinet material and ministerial advice publicly available and improving reporting on OIA responses. We also routinely publish ministerial diaries online, and have increased Ministerial accountability in Parliament. We even legislated to require the Public Service to foster a culture of Open Government."

He said he expected media queries to be treated as a priority.

"In the cases I am aware of and certainly in my office they are. More widely, the latest data collected and published by the Public Service Commission on OIA responses shows agencies are on the whole getting it right.

"The average time to respond to all OIAs across the Public Service is 12.5 working days, and overall agencies respond to 97 percent of requests on time. Only 8.5 percent of requests were extended and 2.8 percent were transferred, and of the requests refused in full, nearly 80 percent of them were because the information did not exist, was not held or was already or soon to be made public."

"We have done a lot in this space but there is always room to do more, and as I have shown to date I am committed to that."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs