Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More OIA control-freakery

First we had Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman demanding all "sensitive" OIA requests to his department are run by his office (and starting a witch-hunt when they are not). Now, the government's OIA control-freakery has been taken a step further, with Health Minister Tony Ryall making the same demand of DHBs:

District health board bosses have been told to run official information requests past the health minister, raising fears their independence will be undermined.

In a letter sent to all DHB chief executives at the end of June and obtained by The Dominion Post, Health Ministry staffer Oliver Poppelwell asked boards to supply Tony Ryall's office with copies of all requests under the Official Information Act, which allows the public and media to ask for information from any government body.

The minister's staff would also liaise with boards about the response "on occasion".

This is a gross abuse of power. DHBs are statutorily independent, and run by their own boards. They are responsible to the Minister for performing their functions, but the relationship is deliberately an arm's-length one. As such, the Minister's legal powers are quite limited: he can direct them to give effect to a particular policy, but not any specific act (so the Minister can't say "bump my mother to the top of the waiting list), and only by publishing a notice in the Gazette.

The reason for this demand is pretty transparent: governments and health ministers get hammered by any hint of poor performance in the health sector, a tactic used successfully by Ryall last term. Now he doesn't want anyone using it against him, and wants to cut off the flow of information which makes it possible. It is a purely political move, and directly contrary to the OIA's spirit of openness.

It wil be very interesting to see what the DHB's responses were, and whether their OIA policies have changed as a result. In the meantime, people have suddenly got a new list of things to OIA: they can ask Ryall every week/month for whatever he has been forwarded by DHBs, and any communications he made in response.

[Hat-tip: Tumeke, who has a way with words: "Tony Ryall wants to run the Eye of Mordor over any official information request in the health sector..."]