Monday, December 12, 2016

Talking to themselves about secrecy

The latest Ombudsman's Quarterly Review mentioned that the Ombudsman was planning to consult on new guidance around the "free and frank" withholding ground:

Accordingly, next month, we join with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in leading a discussion on the issues that arise, and appreciation of the viewpoints, to feed into guidance we are drafting to give a little more certainty in this very sensitive area of good government.

The "free and frank" clause is the most controversial withholding ground, effectively giving Ministers licence to hide politically embarrassing material under the guise of protecting public servants' ability to do their jobs. So there's an obvious question of who exactly will the Ombudsman and DPMC be having this "discussion" with? I sent an urgent OIA to DPMC to find out, and the response is not good news:

Looking at this participant list, everyone on it is either a public servant or a former public servant. Who speaks for OIA users in this "discussion"? No-one. Instead, the government is having a one-sided "discussion", effectively with itself, about how much we should be allowed to know about what they are doing. And in practice, given the numbers and the total absence of requester voices, it will be DPMC browbeating the Ombudsman for more secrecy.

If this is the process, we can have no confidence in the guidance which results.