Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Austerity kills transparency

Back in March, we learned that the promised review of the Official Information Act had been deferred indefinitely due to resource constraints: The Ministry of Justice had been told to do too much by their Minister, so it was dumped. At the time, I thought that this was due to policy changes after the election. But according to new documents released by the Ministry of Justice, the rot set in much earlier.

In September 2019, the Ministry recommended a review of the OIA. In November 2019 they followed this up with a budget bid for Budget 2020. This was clearly being progressed, and in February 2020 they got as far as drafting a Cabinet paper. But in the end, it was "never provided to the Minister or sent outside the Ministry of Justice". And unfortunately we don't know why, because there are no more documents, and the Ministry conveniently didn't take notes in apparent violation of the Public Records Act and Public Service Commission guidance.

The Cabinet paper has been withheld entirely as "free and frank advice" (which is naturally off to the Ombudsman), and large chunks of the budget bid are redacted as "confidential" despite this review being shitcanned. But in the bits they left in, there are explicit statements that the Ministry was unable to do the review without extra funding:

However due to resourcing constraints and an over-subscribed work programme the Ministry cannot commit to a review of the OIA in the next 2-3 years.
Current funding for the Policy Group is insufficient to take on substantial new projects without trading off against other priorities. A review of the OIA is highly unlikely to proceed under these constraints because of its impact on other high priority Government and Ministerial projects.
In other words, Labour's ongoing austerity seems to have killed any effort to improve transparency. The Ministry took another go after the 2020 election, drafting a briefing in September 2020 in anticipation of a post-BIM discussion. In the end it was not finalised, after Kris Faafoi indicated his policy priorities did not include transparency.

Which is a shame, because the budget bid makes a clear case for reform, stating that "[w]ithout a review, ongoing concerns about compliance with the OIA and with the legislation itself are likely to remain unaddressed" and delivering a damning assessment of the current state of the law:

The OIA is 37 years old and has not substantially changed since enactment. It no longer reflects its operating environment or developments internationally. It is perceived as outdated and lacking in credibility.
And a year later, its even more so. It would be nice if the government finally decided to fix one of the foundations of our democracy.