Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A failure to assist

Stuff today has a piece on The anatomy of an OIA fail, on their efforts to get immunisation rates by suburb. It is not a pretty story:

"We're concerned about the usefulness of such a project and not keen to proceed,’’ Health Ministry senior adviser Bonnie Jones emailed a colleague.

Extracting the information I’d asked for was possible, the colleague responded, but would require "a fair bit of work".

So they refused my request, as too time-consuming to collate. When another Stuff journalist, Talia Shadwell, asked, the communications simply went dead. Michelle Duff was later told the information didn't even exist.

But when New Zealand Herald data editor Chris Knox asked, one week after Duff, the information magically became available. Even then, some data was withheld despite top ministry staff admitting there was no legal basis to do so.

All of this is illegal. The first is just a blatant case of an agency - or a particular manager- deciding they don't want to give out information for PR reasons, and concocting a reason to refuse. The latter cases are a clear and willing refusal to obey the duty to assist: it was clear in each case what the requesters were asking for, but again the agency - or particular managers - decided they didn't want to, so pretended they didn't understand. And even when the information was released, it had deletions for no lawful purpose.

None is this is legal or acceptable. So why do government agencies keep doing it? Because there are no penalties. The Act contains no legal penalties for non-compliance - not even having to pay for the Ombudsman's investigation - while no staff member ever faces employment consequences for illegal secrecy. That needs to change. The Ombudsman has recommended criminal penalties for willing refusals (something which would empower staff to stand up to Ministers and senior managers). But there also needs to be employment consequences. After all, these people are not doing their jobs properly. And at the very least, that seems like the sort of thing worthy of a formal warning, retraining, and (if repeated), sacking.