For the past year, the Chief Ombudsman Beverely Wakem has been reviewing the operation of the Official Information Act. However, from her comments to a select committee today, its clear that she has been wasting our time. Wakem said that her review (which will be released next week, when she fortunately retires) found no "inappropriate" political interference with requests. Which might be true. However, she then went on to criticise requesters, and particularly the media:
She said some requests under the OIA were too broad and in some cases were impossible for a short-staffed agency to meet.
Wakem told the committee she had observed chief executives get "gun shy" about requests, particularly from media.
She later told reporters: "If you are going for a quick sound bite and a 'gotcha' headline it does make people (gun shy) who are innately conservative anyway, and worrying about the context in which they might release something, and how it is understood."
As a former chief executive and as Ombudsman she had seen examples of reporters running up against deadlines and wanting to be first and that "imposes a break on the relationship" that was unfortunate and sometimes unavoidable.
She said chief executives might take an objective view of whether information should be released "if the approach to them was not like a rottweiler on heat. Frankly it's the relationship you establish with the chief executive."
And this person is supposed to be the guardian of transparency and accountability. Instead, she seems to view her role as making excuses for power.
To point out the obvious, responding to OIA requests is a statutory duty. And it is the duty of Ministers to ensure that their agencies have sufficient resources to meet that duty. If agencies are "short-staffed", then they should be given resources to cope, rather than this being used as an excuse for illegal behaviour. As for the idea that Chief Executives' responses will depend on their relationship with the journalists concerned, it is as revolting as it is unlawful. We are supposed to be a country of laws, not men - and it is the Ombudsman's job to uphold that. To have these views expressed by the Ombudsman calls her ability to do her job into question, and suggests that her entire review is simply a whitewash for power.