Monday, September 28, 2020

International Right To Know Day

Today, 28 September, is International Right To Know Day (or, as the UN puts it, the "International Day for Universal Access to Information"). The Ombudsman is celebrating with a poll showing that while most people don't know about their freedom of information rights, those that use them mostly get what they ask for. Meanwhile, here's the reality of freedom of information in New Zealand:

  • Agencies lie about proactive release: Two weeks ago, the Electoral Commission told me that their advice on the shifting of the election date would be proactively released "in the next week". It still hasn't been, and they haven't responded to the query I sent them about it.
  • Agencies abuse eligibility to deter requests: The police have been doing this for a long time, despite being repeatedly told not to by the Ombudsman. Now the Ministry of Health is following suit, adopting a policy that any request made via the FYI platform is by default ineligible, and demands people expose their private information on the web, or shift the request out of the public view.
  • Secrecy is expanding: Secrecy clauses, exempting certain agencies or types of information from the OIA, keep appearing in legislation and keep being passed. Sometimes, these are driven by a distrust of transparency. Mostly, they're driven by dysfunctional agencies distrusting each other, and making us pay the price for their dysfunction.
  • Major agencies are still cloaked in secrecy: The Official Information Act does not apply to Parliament, or the Governor-General. Overseas jurisdictions happily include their equivalents.
  • Parliament is uninterested in reform: Despite being some of the heaviest users of the OIA, MPs have taken no real measures to fix it to prevent or reduce abuses. They made no substantive reforms in response to the Law Commission's review of the Act in 2012, or to its review in 1997, or in response to repeated requests by the Open Government partnership's independent reviewers in recent years. In fact, they have made no substantive changes since 1987, despite well-reported and well-known problems with the OIA regime. While the current government has promised to "re-write" the Act if re-elected, it won't tell us what it wants to do, or even commit to a public consultation process. And given how they planned to run their previous review - in secrecy, with handpicked experts and stovepiped results - we can't have any real confidence they're not planning to make things worse.
So, while we have some things to celebrate, we also have a lot that needs fixing. Here's my suggestions for where we need to start.