Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Mixed news on the OIA

The Ombudsman and State Services Commission have released their six-monthly OIA and complaint statistics. The short version is that both the number of requests and the number of complaints is up, but average timeliness has decreased slightly - something the State services Commissioner is disappointed in. However, almost all core agencies are over the 90% on time, and delinquent agencies TPK and MfE have improved their performance significantly. The worst core government agency - Ministry of Defence - still manages to respond to 86.1% of requests on time, which was just a middling performance when these statistics started being produced. For non-core agencies, the Maori Language Commission is the worst, with a 50% on-time rate, though small sample size matters there. The next worst is the Hutt valley DHB, with 68.8%. The previous worst agency, Hawkes Bay DHB, has managed to improve its performance significantly.

All of which sounds good. But as Proactively Open points out in a post on last year's statistics, the improvements probably just mean that agencies have learned to extend requests properly, or are some cases are gaming the ability to release a decision before the actual information. And as Mark Hanna pointed out last month, many agencies have a disturbing tendency to respond on the last day, rather than meeting the "as soon as reasonably practicable" standard.

What this shows us is that we need better statistics in order to get a full picture. Measuring median and average response time (or better yet, providing per-agency histograms) would allow those measures to be improved as well. As would measuring outcomes: refusals, partial releases, and full releases. Other countries produce these sorts of statistics. We need to as well. We also need timelines statistics for Ministers - something which is outside the SSC's jurisdiction, but which they could do voluntarily. The government's refusal to do this shows the level of its commitment to open government.

The number of complaints has again increased - something the Ombudsman blames on the electoral cycle (we'll see). The proportion of resolved complaints which resulted in a remedy - in other words, which found poor decision-making - was up slightly, from 65% to 66.2%. There's also been a shift in the balance of complaints about partial vs full refusals: complaints about full refusals are up 25%, while those on partial refusals are down 13%. Combined with the timeliness statistics, this suggests that agencies may be refusing requests in order to complete them in time. Its a typical bureaucratic response to being managed, and I'd hope the Ombudsman investigates the culture of agencies which display a pattern of this sort of refusal.