Friday, August 03, 2012

OIA Review: More appalling conclusions

I've been reading more of the Law Commission's review of the Official Information Act [PDF], this time on resourcing and charging. The first is about how agencies cope with large and time consuming requests. As expected, government agencies go through their usual laundry-list of complaints: "fishing expeditions" (AKA "people wanting to know stuff"), multiple-agency requests (AKA "people wanting to know who knows stuff"), and repeated requests (AKA "people wanting to know stuff responding to hyper-legalistic games from Ministers"). They believe it is deeply unfair that an unnamed agency has to handle as many as 129 requests in a year - that's one every three days - and that recourse to existing administrative refusal grounds is deterred by the threat of adverse publicity (AKA "being accountable to the public for your OIA decisions").

Naturally, the Law Commission swallows all of this shit whole:

The importance of freedom of information is beyond question. But the expenditure of public money on this scale must be questioned.
They then approvingly quote the Cabinet Office that answering large requests
places undue emphasis on the principle of the progressive availability of information without an equivalent focus on the rider that this is 'thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand.'
..."good government" apparently being all about secrecy and cost-saving, rather than transparency and accountability.

As for the Law Commission's solutions to this "problem", they propose strengthening administrative withholding provisions, in particular by expanding the "substantial collation and research" clause to include time spent reading and redacting - that is, withholding - information. So excessive secrecy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; agencies will be able to refuse requests basically because it will be too much work for them to be secret - work that could be reduced or avoided if they were less secretive.

The other solution the Law Commission proposes is charging. At present, agencies almost never charge for information, due to either a commitment to transparency, it being too much work, or a desire to avoid adverse publicity. In the past eight years of requests, I've been asked for money only a handful of times, almost always by local authorities seeking to deter requests. While it never explicitly says so, the Law Commission pretty clearly wants to change that, and see wider use of charging. In particular, they want agencies to be able to charge requesters for the entire process - meaning they can charge for their own secretive practices - and they want to end the de facto exemption for political party research units. The discussion of the latter shows no understanding of the democratic role this fulfils, or how it helps agencies be properly accountable to Parliament (and through Parliament, the people of New Zealand). Instead, its all about limiting costs, deterring requests, and making life easy for bureaucrats.

Again, these are appalling conclusions, whose primary effect would be to roll back transparency, and hence accountability. The Law Commission should be deeply ashamed that it has reached them.