Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An attack on freedom of information II

Last month, the State Services Commission released guidance for state servants during the election period, which included a significant attack on freedom of information. Currently the OIA is requester-neutral - everyone's requests are supposed to be treated equally under the law, regardless of who they are or why they are asking. But the SSC has told state sector agencies to treat requests from opposition political parties differently, requiring notification of the Chief Executive, consultations with Ministers, and possible extensions. The practical effect is to toss requester-neutrality out the window, while abusing the OIA to support the government of the day and suppress information they find politically embarrassing.

This flies in the face of the OIA's principles, not to mention past guidance from the Ombudsman (yes, the public service has been spanked before for these sorts of stunts), and I was curious as to whether SSC had consulted the Ombudsman for their views before releasing this guidance. So I asked. The response?

The State Services Commission does not hold any correspondence relating to the preparation of the OIA advice in the Guidance for the 2014 Election period. It is the State Services Commissioner’s responsibility to issue guidance for the election period and to revise or refine this guidance from time to time. There was no consultation with the Office of the Ombudsman or with Ministers. The Minister of State Services was provided a copy of the guidance.

Which is quite shocking - I'd expect any agency issuing guidance on the OIA to at least consult the Ombudsman to ensure that their advice is consistent with the Act and won't result in a flood of complaints.

As for the next step: I'm considering making an Ombudsmen's Act complaint. Let's see what the Ombudsmen think of SSC's guidance when its brought to their attention...