Tuesday, December 08, 2015

A game of hide and seek

Today, the Chief Ombudsman released her review of the OIA, Not a game of hide and seek. Its a long read, but here's some initial impressions:

  • The Ombudsman finds that Ministers are sending "mixed messages" about openness and transparency. The Prime Minister is directly to blame here, but the Ombudsman spends some time backing away from her comments criticising him. She did however recommend the PM, Ministers, Chief Executives issue clear and direct statements of their commitment to the OIA and expectations of compliance. While I look forward to that, I'll believe it when I see it.
  • As with every other review of the OIA, this one has found a clear need for leadership within the public sector to champion the Act and provide guidance on it. You'd think this would be the job of the State Services Commissioner, the guardian of our public service. But they don't want a bar of it, saying that "it is neither practical nor desirable for the Commission itself to assume responsibility" and "the State Services Commission is currently not resourced to carry out such a role nor has it been a high priority for us to provide this service to the system". They also opposed the Ombudsman's efforts to survey their staff about OIA practices, and prevented the survey from being publicised on the SSC's intranet. This, BTW, is the agency responsible for managing our participation in the Open Government Partnership - and this attitude perhaps explains why they're so crap at it.
  • The Ombudsman thinks MPs shouldn't be exempt from being charged from OIA requests. This is pitched as a matter of equality under the law, and to prevent them from huge, time-consuming requests - but also as away of enabling those requests to be answered rather than refused for "substantial collation and research". But its a non-starter. There are good reasons, both rational and practical, for not charging MPs. Obviously, a well-informed opposition means a well-informed House, and facilitating their access to information contributes to our democracy. And on the practical front, can you imagine what would happen if an agency "decided" (was ordered by their Minister) to start charging for opposition requests? There'd be questions to the Minister in the House, adverse media stories, and possibly a complaint to the Privileges Committee for impeding the House in its duties. And of course they'd seek the information in other ways - either by written questions to the Minister (which the agency has to answer anyway, and in less time), or simply by summoning the chief executive before select committees to provide the answers they seek. In short, a lot of shit (which would naturally flow downhill), for no reduction in workload. So I'd put that in the "not going to happen" box.
  • The Ombudsman spends 4 pages criticising the media - which she has no jurisdiction over and who are well beyond the terms of reference of this review - for being mean about the departments they request official information on. Which reinforces the comments she made last week which destroyed her reputation.
There's some useful recommendations in here about record-keeping, the need for standardised protocols governing interactiosn with Ministers' offices, and the need for public commitment to transparency. It would be nice if something came of them. But with a Prime Minister who publicly admits to gaming the OIA and an SSC who wants nothing to do with it, I don't expect much. Things will only change when we get political change, to a government which values transparency. And that is at least two years away.