Monday, June 29, 2009

Mallard vs the OIA

Earlier in the year, National moved to introduce standardised testing in primary schools "to improve standards". But they've run into a problem: teachers, principals and schools are refusing to cooperate with the new regime because the information will inevitably be used to construct school "league tables", if not by the government then by the public using the Official Information Act. Now Labour's education spokesperson, Trevor Mallard, is proposing a solution: a "minor tweak" to the OIA, preventing the release of school-level data. This would undoubtedly solve the problem and give the schools the secrecy they desire. But in the process it would do immense damage to our freedom of information regime.

Why? Firstly, because the purpose of members of the public in requesting information, and the use they will put it to, has never been a legitimate part of the consideration of OIA requests. Secondly, because it would be a remarkable shift in the regime from considering the interests which might be prejudiced by releasing information (e.g. privacy, justice, national security) to exempting specific classes of information entirely. And of course it would set a terrible precedent for a bunch of bureaucrats to get secrecy (and hence unaccountability) just because they whined for it. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of league tables (and I agree that what they primarily show is the socioeconomic status of the intake), this "cure" is worse than the disease. For very good reasons, to do with democratic participation and holding officials to account, we have enacted a law whose basic principle is that

information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it
The fact that information might be "misused" (in the eyes of those seeking unaccountability), misinterpreted, or misunderstood has never been a good reason for denying access under the law. And if the government or anyone else is concerned about those possibilities, then the correct response is for them to stand up and explain properly, not hide behind secrecy. More information, not less.