Tuesday, April 07, 2015

This is what an underfunded watchdog looks like

Last year, we learned that then-Justice Minister Judith Collins had taken time off on a taxpayer-funded trip to China to endorse her husband's company in violation of Cabinet Manual conflict of interest rules (and basic standards of propriety). When confronted with this, Prime Minister John Key first claimed that the Cabinet Office had said it was all OK, then admitted that he had lied and misled the public.

Cabinet Office advice on conflicts of interest is normally ironclad, kept secret so Ministers will continue to seek it. But the Prime Minister's public deceit opened a chink in that defence, as the Ombudsman had specifically cited deceit as a reason for disclosure. So, I requested the advice under the OIA. Naturally, the Cabinet Office refused. Naturally, I complained to the Ombudsman. That was a year ago. And a year on, I'm still waiting. The only communication I've had from them has been an email issuing me a complaint number.

This isn't surprising. In 2013-14 the Ombudsman were funded for only two-thirds of the number of complaints they actually receive, with the result that they managed to resolve only 44% of all non-priority investigations within a year. So, I guess I'm just one of the 56% who has to wait longer. At the same time, its very clearly not how the system is supposed to work. The Ombudsman is supposed to be a watchdog, holding Ministers and officials to account and ensuring that their decisions comply with the law. But they can't do that job if they're not resourced to do it in a timely fashion. And the net result is Ministers and officials making poor or blatantly unlawful decisions, secure in the knowledge that a complaint will never be brought, or if one is brought, it will take so long to resolve that they will have moved on and it will all be old news anyway. And so rather than being a check on decisions, the complaints process simply becomes another for of defence for decision-makers...

And the consequences are right there in the Ombudsman's annual report: people have stopped complaining about late responses, because they know there's no point. And so underfunding leads directly to unaccountability for unlawful behaviour.

This isn't good enough. We need an OIA complaints system that actually functions in a timely fashion. And that means properly funding the Ombudsman's Office so they can cope with the workload they actually have, not the workload they had ten years ago. Anything less is a direct attack on transparency.