Wednesday, October 27, 2021

"Close to useless"

A while ago I pointed out how some government agencies are juking the OIA stats, abusing the power to extend requests to make it look like they are answering requests in a timely manner, when the reality is anything but. I didn't do the followup of trawling through estimates hearings to get the exact numbers, but Stuff's Nikki Macdonald did it another way, using the OIA itself. And her conclusion is that the statistics are close to useless:

The statistics tracking how long government agencies take to answer Official Information Act requests are “close to useless”, a Stuff investigation reveals.

The OIA generally requires agencies to respond to requests within 20 working days. However, the statistics count extensions as "on time" responses.

So some agencies who report 100 per cent compliance "within legislative timeframes" are actually extending half of their requests, or taking up to five times the 20-day timeframe.

An advocate for open government says the statistics incentivise extensions and are designed “for nice headlines for government, not better results for requesters”.

It is telling that neither the Public Service Commissioner nor the Ombudsman was willing to be interviewed about this. The conclusion is that they know the stats are cooked and the system is abused, and they'd rather hide than front up and be held accountable for it.

Some requests will need to be extended, but looking at the graph, that number seems to be about 20%. Any agency extending significantly more than that is probably cheating, and the GCSB/SIS (the worst offenders) certainly are - the Ombudsman recently found they had been pretending their normal signout process was "consultation" to scam extensions. I guess we'll see whether their behaviour has actually changed if Stuff does followup work next year.

Supposedly the statistics will be improved to include extensions in the future, but that's only half the problem. As long as agencies can get away with unlawful extensions, they will keep doing it. The way to improve their behaviour is to complain about it. Fortunately, extension complaints are easy (so formulaic in fact that I'm wondering if the process can be automated), and I have a guide to making them here. So the next time an agency extends your OIA request, complain.