Thursday, January 31, 2019

Making work for themselves

Speaking of the Minister of Justice, I've been trawling through his answers to parliamentary written questions (in the hope that some useful opposition Minister might have asked a basic question about briefings received which might suggest documents worth investigating), and noticed a series of questions from Gerry Brownlee seeking information about how the Minister's OIA requests are tracked as well as basic timeliness statistics. Its the usual story of unhelpful, bullshit "answers", but he eventually admits he uses "a spreadsheet" and then a database with "several thousand fields" which must be kept secret to protect the Minister and requesters from malignant hackers (hint: you can request this spreadsheet, and I've done so in the past). But despite all this record-keeping, the Minister is apparently unable to answer basic questions about timeliness, including average and maximum response times, or even how many requests are answered within statutory timeframes (all of which should be standardised reports or functions in any well-designed system). Meanwhile, his associate Minister, who presumably uses the same system, is able to provide at least some of this data (though is still incapable or unwilling to work out the average of 26 numbers).

(Poking around, Brownlee seems to have asked the same series of ten questions seeking basic OIA data to every Minister and associate Minister. Basic OIA data which agencies are required to publish, but Ministers are not).

The government complains regularly about the opposition "flooding" them with written questions. But here, an opposition MP was forced to send twenty-one questions seeking information which, thanks to government obfuscation and denial, could have been answered in one or two, and which arguably should have been proactively published anyway. Its a perfect example of how Ministers make work for themselves by obsessively playing bullshit games over secrecy. And our ability to hold them accountable suffers as a result.

As for what to do about it, the broad answer is for Ministers to grow the fuck up and be transparent. But on the specific issue, they have decided to hold agencies accountable for their OIA performance by requiring them to publish statistics, and they should hold themselves to the same standard. As for how to do it, its surely not beyond the wit of Ministerial Services to have a standardised application or spreadsheet format with inbuilt reports for Ministerial staff to use. But that would require Ministers committed to opennness and accountability, rather than wasting everyone's time playing bullshit political games simply to frustrate the opposition and the public.