Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Treasury and the OIA

How does Treasury handle OIA requests? Someone is using FYI, the public OIA request system, to ask agencies for their OIA processes as part of a wider research program. Treasury's response to this request is here, and the documents they have released are quite interesting and informative. And they reveal a couple of problems.

Firstly, Treasury's redaction policy appears to be unlawful. The instructions are contained in their process to "Finalise, Assess and Mark-Up Relevant Information" (p. 25) and requires staff to:

If at all possible, remove complete blocks of text (e.g. whole phrases, sentences, paragraphs, or pages) rather than individual words or numbers. If the removal of certain words or numbers makes the remaining information irrelevant or meaningless, then remove the entire sentence or paragraph.

[Emphasis added]

But information being irrelevant or meaningless without key words or numbers is not a lawful reason under the Act for withholding it. Furthermore, decisions on what to redact must be guided by the Principle of Availability - agencies should redact as little as possible. If this results in documents which look like confetti in places, then so be it - better that than agencies redact more than they need to.

Secondly, Treasury believes its OIA training material is secret (document 3, p 47-51). What staff are supposed to get out of the workshop, and examples / case studies of requests for discussion are all redacted as "free and frank opinion". This is simply ridiculous. A training goal is not an opinion, and neither is an example scenario. What staff say during any particular workshop might be free and frank opinion, but course material designed to encourage discussion and illustrate the proper application of the Act (and common mistakes in dealing with it) can not possibly be. Furthermore, there's a strong public interest in release, in that publication of this material helps build public confidence that Treasury staff are well-trained and will deal with requests lawfully. Conversely, keeping this material secret undermines public confidence. Treasury has fucked up here, and they need to remedy it.

The good news is that their detailed advice from that point onwards is not redacted, and is a thorough explanation of the Act and how it should be applied. There are a few problems - buried in the "process lessons" (doc 4, p. 99) is advice to effectively ask Ministers to approve redactions within Treasury OIAs, something they recognise elsewhere is inappropriate. But its generally good guidance. Hopefully other agencies guidance is as thorough.