Monday, March 19, 2018

The value of metaOIA's

Radio New Zealand has another story of OIA abuse this morning, this time from the Auckland Council:

Auckland Council senior executives stalled the release of a major report, for political convenience in a possible breach of official information law.

The study on the impact of moving the imported car trade away from Auckland was withheld from RNZ by the council for five months, and released only after intervention by the Ombudsman's office.

Email exchanges released by the council to RNZ include a discussion on how the report could be withheld to allow the council to better "manage" its release.

Another executive observed that it "might not be useful" having the report in the public domain during last year's general election campaign.

Almost all of the exchanges over how to handle RNZ's five-month long effort to get the report, include senior staff in the office of mayor Phil Goff.

Particularly telling is the way they concocted a plan for future release in response to the request, simply so they could refuse it. Which is a perfect example of bad faith and an abuse of power right there. The behaviour uncovered shows us how officials game the system, and why we need criminal penalties for doing so. Because without such penalties, there's simply no incentive to obey the law.

All of this information was uncovered by a metaOIA - a request for information about the processing of a request. Officials are required by the Public Records Act to document their decisions, and those records and the inevitable emails around them can be requested. Such requests have become an increasingly useful tool over the past few years for exposing poor OIA practice and naming and shaming abusive officials (here's another example). Officials who make poor or contentious decisions should expect to have those decisions scrutinised - not just by the Ombudsman, but by the public.