Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Why the police make such bad OIA decisions

In my years of doing OIA requests, I've learned one basic lesson: the police are awful at them. Quite apart from a mindset which seems utterly opposed to transparency, oversight and accountability, they seem to lack a basic grasp of what the law actually says. And now we know why: because their guidance on how to process requests is so bad. Someone used FYI, the public OIA request site, to request the police's policy on handling OIA requests. This resulted in the disclosure of two compilations from the police intranet: Guidelines for processing information requests and Disclosing official and personal information. Both glom together all types of information request: OIA, Privacy Act, interdepartmental requests, Ministerials, pre-trial disclosure and general media inquiries - meaning that its easy to confuse types of request and nothing gets the attention it deserves. But specifically with regards to the OIA, the police guidance:

  • says that requests can not be made anonymously;
  • says extensions can be granted simply because a request will take longer than 20 working days;
  • fails to separate conclusive, non-conclusive, and administrative withholding grounds;
  • gives no guidance on the factors required for each withholding ground;
  • fails to note that the countervailing public interest in disclosure must be considered for non-conclusive grounds

I'll leave it for experts on the Privacy Act to find the errors in handling requests under that legislation.

Interestingly, the police's recent habit of demanding sensitive personal information (addresses and passport numbers) from electronic requesters does not appear anywhere in the policy - and in fact seems to be contrary to it. The policy explicitly states that "every endeavour should still be made to comply with [a] request" from an ineligible person. Which really makes you wonder why they bother (the answer, of course, is to intimidate and discourage requests).

By any measure, this policy provides inadequate guidance, and therefore simply creates more work for police in the form of Ombudsman complaints. They should update it, and soon. After all, those who uphold the law need to be seen to be complying with it, no matter how inconvenient it is for them.