Friday, October 05, 2018

Looking into it

So, Callaghan Innovation's treatment of OIA requests from the Taxpayer's Onion and its wrongful release of personal information about them seems to have backfired badly, with the Ombudsman announcing that they may launch an investigation. And they should. Because apart from the concerns about differential treatment, Callaghan chair Pete Hodgson's admissions this morning about the wrongful release - effectively, that he believed it to be justified by the "abuse of process" the Taxpayer's Union had carried out by exercising their statutory right to information to embarrass his agency - should give cause for concern. In case anyone has forgotten, this was exactly the reasoning used by Paula Bennett in exposing personal information about beneficiaries who criticised publicly criticised her, and its as unacceptable from Hodgson as it was from her. When we entrust government agencies with our personal information, whether voluntarily as when making an OIA request or by coercion, we expect them to be a proper and ethical custodian of it. This means not just adhering to the requirements of the Privacy Act and only using it for its specified purpose and not disclosing it without lawful authority to others, but also not using it to mount political vendettas against people. Callaghan Innovation's actions, and Hodgson's endorsement of them, are contrary to that principle, and suggest an element of vindictiveness which is inappropriate in a government agency and which undermines public trust in government. And that damn well needs to be investigated and stamped out.

As for the Ombudsman, though, his comment that "if there are abuses, by either requesters or agencies, I want to look into it and report on it" is cause for concern. He should not need to be reminded, but it is no part of the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman to "look into" the actions of requesters. It is not part of their functions under the OIA, and neither is it part of their functions under the Ombudsmen's Act. In both cases, those functions are limited to investigating the decisions of government, of Ministers, agencies and officials. Any action therefore to "look into" the "abuses" of requesters would be unlawful. If the Ombudsman wants to eliminate subterfuge from requesters, the way to do it is by restoring public confidence in the OIA system and protection of personal information so that it is unnecessary.