Thursday, March 21, 2013

About time

The Ombudsman will conduct a broad investigation of OIA processes across the entire public sector:

The agency charged with reining in the power of government is to investigate the way public bodies are releasing information as citizens complain of being shut out.

The Office of the Ombudsman is to begin its own investigation into the way the public service is responding to the Official Information Act as allegations are made of a "paralysis of democracy".


A recent investigation into the Ministry of Education's handling of requests to do with Christchurch schools raised questions about the processes used by government agencies to deal with requests.

Constitutional lawyer Mai Chen said the problems raised questions about how well public servants understood a law intended to give balance to the "David and Goliath" inequality between citizen and government.

Good. When the same issues crop up in complaints again and again across a wide range of public bodies, then the best way to reduce them (and to reduce the Ombudsman's workload to something more manageable) is to prevent the problems from happening in the first place. And hopefully this inquiry will achieve that. Otherwise we're going to see the system become increasingly dysfunctional as the Ombudsman drowns in complaints, and agencies become ever bolder about unlawful refusals because there are no consequences (and even if there are, they will be so slow that the relevant staff will have moved on by then, so it will be Someone Else's Problem).

At the same time, this will need to be combined with education to ensure that agencies start acting on the findings of this investigation, and proper resourcing so the Ombudsman can deal with their complaints backlog. Its now a six month wait between complaining and even being assigned an investigator, which means that there is simply no point complaining about late requests or unlawful transfers anymore, let alone withholding of newsworthy or time-sensitive information, because the request will have been resolved before the Ombudsman even gets to it. Which means that there's just no incentive on agencies to comply with the law at all.