Tuesday, August 18, 2020

OIA charging: Who charges for OIA requests in 2020?

Back in 2016, in response to a new OIA charging policy from the Reserve Bank and a push by then-Ombudsman Beverley Wakem for more agencies to charge, I conducted a survey of OIA charging practice. This confirmed the anecdata that in core government agencies charging for OIA requests was so rare as to be virtually non-existent (peripheral agencies and local government are a different story), and many agencies have implicit policies against charging. One of the purposes of the survey was to establish a baseline for further work, so we could see if this changed.

I've just completed another survey asking identical questions of each public service department seeking information on the number of requests they received, the number of times the demanded charges, the number of times they paid, and the amount collected. Responses were due back on Friday, and are collected here. The short version:

  • Out of more than 9,752 requests made to 30 responding agencies, only 4 attracted charges, a rate of 0.04%. This is slightly lower than the 2016 result of 0.05% (excluding Customs, which has since stopped charging). Note "More than": one agency provided information on the number of charges, but not on the number of requests.
  • One agency - MBIE - refused to provide information on the number of requests received, on the basis that different statistics would be released next month by the SSC. Appallingly, they took the full 20 working days to do so, which seems inconsistent with the OIA's "as soon as reasonably practicable" standard.
  • Two agencies - MBIE and Treasury - claimed that they had no idea how often they charged, and that they would have to look through every OIA request to find out. Interestingly, both were able to tell me four years ago. Treasury accepted that this is something they should be tracking, and they are investigating doing so.
  • One agency - the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development - did not respond at all, despite the request being sent to the main contact address listed on their website. A followup sent to their specific OIA address has produced a rapid promise to respond as quickly as possible, so it seems they have an internal administrative problem with passing on requests.
  • 25% (versus 30% in 2016) of agencies responded more or less immediately, within 5 working days of the request.
  • 40% (versus 30% in 2016) of agencies took over 15 working days to respond to a simple request for statistics which should be immediately available if they were tracking their requests properly. Both of these numbers are worse than last time, and raise questions about both these agency's commitment to the OIA's "as soon as reasonably practicable" standard, and about the performance trend of the government overall.
What can we conclude from this? The level of charging for OIA requests rightly remains practically non-existent, and Wakem's push to increase the rate of charging has failed. Agencies continue to recognise that charges are a barrier, and are rightly reluctant to impose them. That is a Good Thing, but what we don't know is the rate of requests declined for requiring "substantial collation and research" when a charge could instead have been requested. So in order to really assess the outcome, we need better, outcomes-based OIA statistics from SSC. Which would incidentally allow us to investigate a number of other issues - for example, the rate of extensions, and whether requests are being refused in order to meet timeliness targets.

Secondly, while its a sample of only 32 requests, the time histogram is troubling, and lends support to Mark Hanna's work suggesting that a number of agencies are treating the 20 working day maximum as a target, and ignoring the "as soon as reasonably practicable" standard. This is something that desperately needs to improve, and I'd like to see a work programme from the Ombudsman, SSC and Ministry of Justice to do so.