Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The OIA Review

Yesterday, the Ombudsman announced that they had begun their review of OIA compliance. They'll be looking closely at 12 central government agencies, and surveying 63 more, as well as all 27 Ministerial offices. They'll also be soliciting submissions from the OIA users, including journalists, political parties, and members of the public.

The full details, including the list of target agencies, are here. The target list is interesting: Customs and ACC are presumably included because they're examples of poor practice, Justice and SSC because they're generally pretty good. I'm a bit surprised by the absence of EQC and CERA from the list, but possibly the Ombudsman thinks they have a good grasp of their OIA processes after the recent inquiries there (OTOH, that's apparently not the case with Ministry of Education, who have also been the subject of a recent inquiry which found severe problems with their OIA process).

Surveyed agencies are basically being asked for all their policies and procedures, written and unwritten, for handling OIA requests and complaints. They specifically highlight Ministerial consultation requirements in the unwritten section. Ministers are being asked a similar set of questions. Currently the Ombudsman simply seems to be asking politely, rather than exercising their powers under s19(1) Ombudsman's Act, but that should be enough. There is the potential for Ministers and Ministerial staff to try and lie about their procedures (I do not believe an NZ public servant would ever lie to the Ombudsman, but politicians and their pet hacks are a different story), which highlights the utterly derisory penalties for doing so. So that's one obvious think which needs to immediately change (but why would Ministers, who are the obvious targets of such a measure, prioritise it on the legislative schedule?)

As for the result, hopefully we'll see some solid guidance issued by the Ombudsman on the operation of the "no surprises" principle limiting Ministerial micromanagement which is currently corrupting the OIA process. Hopefully we'll also see some heads on spikes at Customs for their abuse of the Act.

As the Ombudsman says, this is about confidence in our public sector. We deserve to be able to trust our government. Hopefully the ombudsman will rein in Ministers so we can do so again.