Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Media Take: The creeping politicisation of the OIA

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  • Alastair Thompson,

    I hope the NZ Herald will.post the presentation. I wish I had been there. Was it videoed by them.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 220 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Alastair Thompson,

    I hope the NZ Herald will.post the presentation. I wish I had been there. Was it videoed by them.

    No. It was Chatham House rules, but that only applied to the interaction with the officials, not the text of the speech itself.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22830 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming,

    I realise that there is another side to this: the sheer weight of requests, often themselves highly political, or near-vexatious, that suck up resources.

    A lot of this would go away if agencies published everything unless there was a good reason not to. It would save them time and resources and was where the original act and the Framework for Government-Held Information was pointing. Disk storage is infinite.

    But the mortal fear of having a cockup exposed will always prevent this, and now we have the added factor of dodgy decisions being made for political purposes (e.g. RoNS). Sadly, the Auditor-General doesn't see it as part of their role to police whether agencies are living up to their legislative requirements.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2933 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Fisher gave a speech to around a hundred public officials in Wellington last week, in which he traced a change that he believes took hold in the last term of the Clark government and has created an environment dominated by media management, obstruction and political interference.

    Legend has it the break-through was made by a senior staffer in Cullen's office who figured out they could completely ignore all OIA requests with no consequence whatsoever.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 927 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to nzlemming,

    A lot of this would go away if agencies published everything unless there was a good reason not to.

    Great idea. We pay for their work. Beyond well-defined privacy, commercial and military grounds it should all be published where the public and organisations can review and make use of it.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19707 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    I realise that there is another side to this: the sheer weight of requests, often themselves highly political, or near-vexatious, that suck up resources.

    I’m not sympathetic. If that’s a genuine problem (and I’m not saying it isn’t) then the solution is to appropriately amend the legislation in a manner that happens without undue trauma dozens of times every year. Until then, it should be a baseline expectation that everyone should be properly resourced to comply with the law as it now stands – and that doesn’t include giving civil servants and political hacks the right to ignore OIA requests they deem overly “political” or “vexatious.”

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    One more thing worth noting from Fish’s speech: the malign effect of the “no surprises” policy, which sees nearly every released funnelled through a ministerial office and, effectively, be subject to ministerial sign-off.

    So you can have good, decent public servants acting with the public interest and the law uppermost in mind – and that can all be undone by the inevitably political process of running it by the minister first.

    As Fish notes, it also leads to self-censorship – so officials will learn to redact the “surprising” parts before they surprise (or embarrass) the minister.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22830 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia, in reply to nzlemming,

    Sadly, the Auditor-General doesn’t see it as part of their role to police whether agencies are living up to their legislative requirements.

    The Auditor-General's mandate and responsibilities are determined by the Public Audit Act 2001. I'm sure someone will promptly correct me if I'm wrong, but that doesn't include OIA/LGOIMA compliance.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia, in reply to Russell Brown,

    One more thing worth noting from Fish’s speech: the malign effect of the “no surprises” policy, which sees nearly every released funnelled through a ministerial office and, effectively, be subject to ministerial sign-off.

    The other side of the equation, and one that shouldn't be neglected, is local government and district health boards. You think the Press Gallery has some awful OIA stories try talking to the poor suckers on the council and health rounds.

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Kyle Matthews,

    A lot of this would go away if agencies published everything unless there was a good reason not to.

    I was thinking this same thing as I watched the show last night. If the default was "we publish data", and then you provided reasons not to, then many OIA requests would become irrelevant - you'd simply direct them to the place that all the data got dumped.

    Since Nov 2006 • 6243 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Craig Ranapia,

    The Auditor-General’s mandate and responsibilities are determined by the Public Audit Act 2001. I’m sure someone will promptly correct me if I’m wrong, but that doesn’t include OIA/LGOIMA compliance.

    I wasn't talking about OIA compliance but actually adhering to the legislation and due process that agencies are presumed to be based on.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2933 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Kyle Matthews,

    I was thinking this same thing as I watched the show last night. If the default was “we publish data”, and then you provided reasons not to, then many OIA requests would become irrelevant – you’d simply direct them to the place that all the data got dumped.

    Correct. We were trying to promote this interpretation when I was in the E-government Unit at SSC, but got no traction with agencies or ministers. We had not 'teeth' to make it happen.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2933 posts Report Reply

  • Idiot Savant,

    I realise that there is another side to this: the sheer weight of requests, often themselves highly political, or near-vexatious, that suck up resources.

    Except that there aren't that many requests. While the government hasn't implemented the Law Commissions' reccomendation to keep stats, the work I did on it a few years ago shows the average Ministerial office gets 1 or 2 OIAs a week, and the average department (who have staff to deal with these sorts of things) gets maybe double that (Police, Corrections, ACC and Justice being the exceptions, for obvious reasons). The problem isn't that the OIA is a burden, its that some public servants and most politicians view it as one.

    And I'll third/fourth the support for proactive release. If you release stuff, people don't request it. It saves work, while keeping the public informed. Only pathological secrecry would see that as a bad thing.

    Palmerston North • Since Nov 2006 • 1716 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    A scorching Dom Post editorial on the same topic:

    The Official Information Act seeks to give the people access to government as of right. If the government blocks or impedes that access, it is spurning that right.

    Key's statement was bad enough. It was worse to hear the Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverley Wakem, the people's top watchdog in their battle for information, respond so feebly. Asked on Radio New Zealand if she was concerned about Key's remark, she said she was not because she did not know what he had in mind when he made the remark.

    In fact, it was obvious what he had in mind. He was talking about gaming the legislation for political purposes. Wakem should have seen this as treating the legislation with contempt and she should have told him off in ringing terms.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22830 posts Report Reply

  • Matt Crawford,

    The person who needs to be held accountable here is Iain Rennie. “As State Services Commissioner, I see my role as a guardian of political neutrality across the State Services,”

    He has failed, and must be held to account.

    Wellington • Since Dec 2006 • 58 posts Report Reply

  • Trevor Nicholls, in reply to Idiot Savant,

    The problem isn't that the OIA is a burden, its that some public servants and most politicians view it as one.

    I'd like to know how many government salaries are invested in burying information. And how many in prettying it up before letting the public see it. The calculus isn't just that it costs money to make information available.

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 324 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Matt Crawford,

    Paula Bennett will be just the person for that task..

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19707 posts Report Reply

  • B Jones, in reply to nzlemming,

    A lot of this would go away if agencies published everything unless there was a good reason not to. It would save them time and resources

    No it wouldn't. This would expand the amount of information public servants need to assess for "good reason" from the small amount currently requested to everything they produce. This is the time consuming part of responding to an OIA - not collating the files - that's not hard with a decent filing system. It's deciding will this breach an individual's privacy, will this harm someone's commercial interests, will this undermine the goverment's ability to negotiate for every file note, email, handwritten minute, everything.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 976 posts Report Reply

  • Tinakori,

    I would say crept rather than creeping and I would date the crept to Labour in 1999. Before that there were wild variations in performance depending on the department and the Minister and the Minister's staff. Some people are natural control freaks and others are not. What you got before the end of 1999 depended entirely on departmental culture and the personalities in Ministerial offices (Minister and staff). In the mid 90s Treasury decided rather than release the supporting Budget papers piecemeal it would do so in one hit. This incidentally was also very effective in making them less newsworthy! The appearance under Labour of political advisors in all offices (with too much time on their hands) and a dedicated OIA co-ordinator in the Beehive was a first attempt to implement an administration wide approach to managing the OIA. National is still naturally more anarchic in its management than Labour tried to be and what goes out and when depends far more on the Minister and their staff and the culture of specific departments. Some are relatively open and some are extremely manipulative. The crazy thing is that farting around with releases is almost always a sure way to make the information eventually released more appealing and newsworthy. Would sanctions on performance work and to whom would the sanctions apply? It's a difficult balance because turning the screws too tight might create even more incentives to pull their punches in their written advice to Government. As it is some Ministers try and manipulate the advice they get from their agencies by stating what they want and don't want. Incidentally, in many (sane) Departments releases under the OIA happen as a matter of course without their Minister's office having anything to do with it. Frankly trying to manage all this stuff tightly is way more trouble than it is worth. Laissez les bon temps roulez is a good policy in general not just for parties.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2013 • 118 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Idiot Savant,

    And I’ll third/fourth the support for proactive release. If you release stuff, people don’t request it. It saves work, while keeping the public informed. Only pathological secrecry would see that as a bad thing.

    The problem agencies face now is that we don't trust them anymore. Even if they release everything, we'll accuse them of hiding stuff, based on their past behaviour.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2933 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Matt Crawford,

    The person who needs to be held accountable here is Iain Rennie. “As State Services Commissioner, I see my role as a guardian of political neutrality across the State Services,”

    He has failed, and must be held to account.

    The SSC has been a lap puppy/figleaf since the State Sector Act was passed in 1988. We used to say it was where public servants went to die (us excluded, of course ;-) )

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2933 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to B Jones,

    This would expand the amount of information public servants need to assess for “good reason” from the small amount currently requested to everything they produce.

    Not if you build those steps into document creation. Most government agencies use a document management system, many have implemented EDRMS - all the tools are there, just not the wit nor will to use them.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2933 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Tinakori,

    The appearance under Labour of political advisors in all offices

    Fail. There were plenty of political advisors in the 90's under Bolger/Shipley/ et al

    You're allowed your own opinions, you're not allowed your own facts.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2933 posts Report Reply

  • Idiot Savant, in reply to B Jones,

    This would expand the amount of information public servants need to assess for "good reason" from the small amount currently requested to everything they produce.

    Except that most documents are released almost entirely unredacted, apart from the names and contact information of junior public servants. But as nzlemming notes, this is easily dealt with by designing the workflow for release rather than secrecy. Put someone's private info in a document? Tag it. Advice for consideration? Tag it, along with the date the decision will be made. Provided in confidence? Tag it. Sorting all of this stuff out beforehand makes it much easier later.

    Palmerston North • Since Nov 2006 • 1716 posts Report Reply

  • Idiot Savant,

    Meanwhile, Judith Collins' OIA logs mysteriously don't record requests from her favourite sewerblogger:

    http://norightturn.blogspot.co.nz/2014/10/judith-collins-two-tier-oia-service.html

    Palmerston North • Since Nov 2006 • 1716 posts Report Reply

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