Friday, November 04, 2005

Not acceptable

Steve Maharey's excuse for repeatedly failing to meet deadlines for responding to Official Information Act requests?

Mr Maharey, the former Social Development Minister, says the sheer volume of requests coming into that office was not acceptable when he was minister.

"I'm not going to have my staff worked to ill health just to satisfy the Opposition's research unit."

I'd say that it's Maharey's excuse, rather than the level of requests, which is not acceptable. The law does not allow a Minister to deny requests or drag their feet simply because they feel that the number of requests is too high. And if staff are being overworked responding to them, there's an obvious solution: hire more. That's what the law requires, and a Minister of all people should be setting a good example for the government by conforming to it.

As for the allegation that National was using the OIA to go on fishing expeditions, that is precisely what the law is for, and the sooner Maharey accepts this fact, the better.


Yeah... that is disgraceful... New Zealand likes to go around bragging about how open it is - and in many ways it is, but these sorts of attitudes wouldn't be out of place in Australia, where FOI has more or less died a death (particularly at the Federal level).

Posted by Anonymous : 11/04/2005 12:29:00 PM

Great solution mate. Do you have any idea how hard it is to hire more staff in those offices? If it was possible to, don’t you think Maharey might have already just tried that little gem of advice?
And even if he did manage to get a few more, the opposition would just claim that his office was overbloated and was a burden on the tax payer. It is much easier to make a request than it is to answer one

Show some sense of reality man, it doesn’t all work as easy as it does when viewed through your puritan looking glass.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/04/2005 03:31:00 PM

FFS: Actually I don't. But I could always ask. That's what the Official Information Act is for.

But seriously, as much as Maharey would prefer that the resources of his office were being used to support him rather than dig up information for all and sundry, the fact remains that he has a statutory duty to perform in this area. If he is unwilling to fulfil that duty, then perhaps he shouldn't be a Minister.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 11/04/2005 03:48:00 PM

ffs said...
"Great solution mate. Do you have any idea how hard it is to hire more staff in those offices.."

Balls. There's people falling over themselves to work for a minister. They think it makes them important.

Just get a few Pol Sci graduates and let them loose.

Posted by Unknown : 11/04/2005 06:20:00 PM


Let me write you a reality check. In my experience, in a most libertine newsroom, I rapidly came to the opinion that civil servants would save themselves (and their political masters) a great deal of time, resources and stress if they understood what the OIA & LGIA actually say, rather than making it up as they go along.

If anything, I think people like Mr. Maharey are more responsible for workplace stress by encouraging a sick culture of evasion, that just leads to mututal distrust and hostility. God knows that there were more than a few people whose signatures I was very familiar with I'd have liked to punch in the mouth.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 11/04/2005 06:37:00 PM

I spent years working in the beehive and I am well aware of what a pain in the arse OIAs are. Being sandwiched between risk averse senior civil servants, nervous Ministers and political enemies on the hunt is excruciating. However, IMHO Maharey’s main problem is the paranoid mentality that seems to drive how Labour Governments (well the two that I’ve seen in action) run things. I’m sure OIAs were much easier to manage in Bolger's Government, in spite of having some pretty hopeless Ministers.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/05/2005 05:03:00 AM

A few points about the law. First, if the requests are genuinely vexatious or trivial, they can be declined under section 18(h). A disgruntled requester can get the Ombudsmen to rule if there's disagreement. Second, if they're genuinely unmanageably massive requests, there's the ability to extend the 20-day timeframe, although they're supposed to consult with the requester first. Again, the Ombudsmen can rule on any dispute. Third, the OIA is easy to game, using legitimate and illegitimate stalling and withholding tactics, and the Ombudsmen take months to compete their investigations, by which time the "piquancy" of the request may be lost. Fourth, although fishing expeditions are allowed, they're often dumb requesting strategy, and I have sympathy for officials who respond with proposed charges and long time extensions. The reality is that big requests, in sufficient quantities, could bog down the whole government. The legislative response might well be to curtail open government. It's only opppositions who are really wedded to OIA laws. Fifth, it is part of the core function of the civil service to process these requests (as the Law Commission, courts and Ombudsmen have said), though OIA requests are often regarded as a nuisance and somehow peripheral to officials' "real job". Still I agree with Craig that the biggest problem with the OIA is (many) officials' lack of understanding of it. The second biggest problem is probably stupidly wide requests (wide requests have their place, but they're vastly overused) combined with underresourcing of OIA processing. The third biggest problem is gaming of the system, mostly by, or at the direction of, Ministers. Yes, I think Labour is worse than National was. But I wouldn't put bets on future administrations of either stripe being better. (I've just finished a research paper on the OIA and will be given a public lecture on it at the law school on Nov 15. I'm always interested in hearing from anyone about their experiences of using the OIA - I'd particularly like to hear from Idiot/Savant - and can be reached at

Posted by Anonymous : 11/05/2005 03:08:00 PM