Thursday, December 19, 2013

EQC: A massive government failure

The Ombudsman and privacy Commissioner today released a joint report into OIA / Privacy Act request handling at EQC. In the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, EQC was deluged with claims. Then, as it buckled under the load, it was deluged with requests on those claims by people who wanted to know why they weren't being handled, or weren't handled to their satisfaction.

These requests were quite reasonable. More importantly, they were legal. And EQC failed to fulfil its statutory obligations in handling them. When it got to the stage of telling requesters that it would - illegally - take 6 to 7 months to process a simple OIA request, the Ombudsman and Ombudsman and Privacy Commissioners stepped in. Their report is not pretty reading.

What's clear is how much EQC brought this problem on themselves. They were secretive and uncommunicative, fobbed people off with bullshit, and refused to give people even basic information about their claims or decisions affecting them. Then, when there was an accidental privacy breach, they locked everything down like paranoids, making it even harder for people to access their information. Its no wonder then that people turned to using formal OIA requests in an effort to obtain it. The Ombudsman and Privacy Commissioner cannot understand why some information was not simply proactively provided as a matter of course - and they're right. Its another example of how proactive release can save you vast amounts of hassle later (a message which seems to be gradually getting through).

What's also clear is that EQC brought into the unfortunately common public servant mantra that processing OIA requests "isn't core business". The Ombudsman rightly calls bullshit on this:

Access to information is not just a “nice to have” that gives way to more important priorities in disaster recovery. It is a basic right that enables individuals to engage effectively with government agencies, and to have a proper say in decisions that profoundly affect their lives.

This isn't a question of democratic oversight and political gotchas - its about people finding out what the hell is going on with their claims and whether their house is ever going to be fixed. If EQC doesn't regard that as "core business", then you have to wonder what the hell is.

As for how to fix it, its telling that EQC's response to the Ombudsman's specific (but informal) recommendations on less risk-averse processing is "it can't be done". Instead they're making other changes, shifting to proactive release, and reviewing the amount of information that can be released by call-centre staff. Hopefully that'll be enough.

But there needs to be political accountability as well. EQC essentially abandoned one of its core functions for its own bureaucratic convenience. The Chief Executive and the Minister need to be held accountable for that.