Wednesday, December 18, 2019

What is Archives New Zealand scared of?

What is Archives New Zealand scared of? We're not allowed to know.

All government agencies should be maintaining risk registers of threats to their operations and what they do. Its simply good planning: by knowing about a threat - like the potential for earthquakes, or fires, or corrupt staff - you can take precautions against it, limit the damage it can do, and keep providing services to the public. Someone was interested in whether Archives New Zealand was properly taking care of our taonga and protecting it against the many risks it faces, so they used FYI, the public OIA request site, to ask for copies of their risk register. This request should have been unproblematic: its a formal document, containing factual information, with only limited scope for withholding. But Archives refused the request in its entirety as "free and frank opinion".

That's bad enough - given the nature of a risk register, the "free and frank" clause simply shouldn't apply here, and obviously fully withholding them rather than releasing with limited redactions contravenes the OIA. But then it got worse: someone purporting to be a whistleblower from Archives posted a comment under the request saying that the stated reason for withholding the information was "not entirely true":

What happened is that there is a situation that exists in one of our other buildings. Some of the staff there were really worried about it and went to outsiders for help. One thing led to another and there were some newsmedia articles about it. The ELT found it really embarrassing.

The same kind of situation exists here at archives and has for as long as any of us remember. Its of enough concern that its in our risk register. The ELT are worried that if the register is released the media will pick up on it and there will be more newsmedia articles. Thats why you got fobbed off.

Which seems to be referring to the report that Archives has a problem with superstitious staff. But this is simply illegal. As the Danks Committee said,
The fact that the release of certain information may give rise to criticism or embarrassment of the government is not an adequate reason for withholding it from the public.

(I'd go further: it seems to be a positive reason for release, since it suggests they need to be held accountable for something, and that they fear that accountability).

Archives New Zealand seems to have violated the OIA here, and hopefully the requester will appeal to the Ombudsman. But also, it seems that a meta-request for their records of how they considered this request could be fruitful. Except no doubt they'll consider that to be "free and frank opinion" as well. Which simply shows that the primary purpose of that clause is to protect unprofessional or illegal behaviour.