Monday, November 10, 2014

An outrageous abuse of the OIA

That's the only way to describe Customs' OIA procedures:

Customs developed a special process for releasing public information to the media which included an increase in delays and the freedom for its Cabinet minister to change whatever was released, according to documents provided to the Herald.

The papers (see below) detailing Customs processes for handling Official Information Act requests show it built in a 10-day buffer to give its minister more time to respond.

It signalled there were special steps to be taken for requests for information from politicians, news media or lobby groups.

Those "special steps" mean that any request from such suspect groups goes straight to the Minister's office. Because the Minister needs 10 days to consider it, there's a note that this may require an extension - which surely violates the "as soon as reasonably practicable" clause, and looks a lot like an outright circumvention of the 20-day maximum. And while the Minister's views are called "feedback", any public servant would view ignoring them as a career-limiting move. The net result? Delay and politicised decision-making, right there in black and white.

Underlying all of this is the "no surprises" policy, which has metastisised from notifying the Minister when a request may result in media inquiries or questions in the House (things which they have a legitimate interest in) to giving them a veto power on requests and effectively using the OIA to spy on the inquiries of the media and opposition (things that they do not).

The Ombudsman has already signalled an inquiry into OIA processes, focusing on exactly this type of abuse. Its time that she put a stop to this Ministerial micromanagement, and restored the public's right to know.