Thursday, July 27, 2017

National vs the OIA: The verdict

Last month Transport Minister Simon Bridges was caught trying to bully KiwiRail into unlawfully refusing information. Today, the Ombudsman released their report into the incident - made under the Ombudsmen Act, not the OIA - and it is damning. The report examines Kiwirail's administrative process, rather than the lawfulness of the OIA decisions, and while it concludes that Kiwirail was entitled to consult the Minister's office about the request, it is also clear that they failed to critically evaluate his concerns (and so effectively allowed the Minister to make the decision for them). Then, when their conduct was made public, they made a hasty, rushed decision which was not robust. The Ombudsman is also clear that the Minister's initial concerns - that the document was a draft, was misleading, and should be withheld to protect future budget bids - were not valid reasons for withholding under the OIA, and that Kiwirail made the right decision in initially rejecting them.

As for how to fix this, the Ombudsman has recommended that Kiwirail should review its OIA process and adopt a formal protocol for OIA interactions with the Minister. Meanwhile, it looks like the "budget bid" bullshit defence is going to make its way into the FAQ on common OIA misconceptions.

So, that's a win for transparency - and it shows the value in kicking up a stink about dodgy decisions. Its also highlighted a fruitful avenue for requests: metarequests for communications with Ministerial offices about requests. There's probably all sorts of dirt hidden in those, and if Ministers don't want it publicly exposed, they'll have to ensure they respect the proper boundaries and don't try and bully agencies in future.