Wednesday, February 26, 2014

An attack on freedom of information

Its election year, and the State Services Commission has released guidance for state servants during the election period. But buried in section 2.4 there's a nasty surprise about the OIA:

Requests for information made by political parties during an election period should generally be treated in the same way as any other request for official information. However, the agency’s chief executive must be informed of any Official Information Act request received from an MP or a political party (including party research units) during an election period. The chief executive may wish to consult with the responsible Minister about the request. In such cases, the agency should consider whether it is necessary to extend the timeframe for making a decision on the request using section 15A of the Act.

So requests will be treated differently based on the political affiliation of the requester. So much for a neutral public service - or for a requester-neutral OIA.

As the Ombudsman has previously highlighted, there is a strong public interest in a well-informed electorate in election-year. The SSC's guidance seems to undermine that principle. And while "no surprises" means Ministers must be informed of requests with significant repercussions, this seems to go well beyond that and into political censorship. Which is the very opposite of what a neutral public service should be doing.

It would be interesting to know if the SSC consulted the Ombudsman about this guidance. Conveniently, we have a way of learning that (and as its not related to an investigation, its covered). To the OIA!