Monday, October 03, 2022

Why police ignored the Ombudsman

Back in June, the Ombudsman found that the police were unlawfully delaying OIA requests to notify Ministers under the "no surprises policy". The police said they had changed their process. But then they immediately changed it back, raising questions about whether they had lied to the Ombudsman. So how did that happen?

I used the OIA to ask, and their response is here. They explain their new policy, that it was first implemented on 14 July, and then say that it was reversed because

In the ordinary business of transitioning into the new portfolio, the Minister’s office staff outlined their normal processes for following the standard “no surprises” protocol, followed across the public sector and set as an expectation in paragraph 3.22 of the Cabinet Manual. This was first notified to Police on 18 July 2022, during a phone conversation between one of the Minister’s private secretaries and myself...
...which seems to minimise things a little. Because the documentary record shows that the reversal - which happened a month after Hipkins became police minister, so wasn't "the ordinary business of transition" by any stretch of the imagination - happened because it received immediate pushback from one of Chris Hipkins's ministerial advisers:
[PS] tells me [MA] is not happy with this approach. I've resent Case Note to [PS] so she can provide it to [MA].
While there were some meetings, ultimately, the view of the ministerial adviser - a politically-appointed party hack, not a public servant - prevailed over that of the Ombudsman. Because information is power, and ministers and their hacks don't want to surrender the slightest shred of it, no matter what the law says.

(That ministerial adviser's boss, Chris Hipkins, is also the Minister for the Public Service, and is supposed to be leading them on open government. Which makes this another example of his poor leadership on transparency...)

That response also attempts to minimise the scale of the problem, claiming that "approximately 98 percent of Police OIA responses are sent out without being sighted by the Minister or his office". The police have confirmed by email that they are using the OIA statistics they report to TKM/PSC as a baseline, which are deliberately inflated with huge numbers of routine non-OIA statutory requests in order to mask the woeful performance of PNHQ. The police also say that this only affects "high organisational impact" (HOI) requests. 32% of all requests made to PNHQ in 2021 were marked in this way, and the number has consistently increased year after year. The net result is that police arse-covering and ministerial control-freakery is resulting in widespread, unlawful delays to the OIA process.

So will the Ombudsman do anything about this? Sadly, he seems to have swallowed the "only 2%" spin hook, line, and sinker. I guess the lesson here is that if you juke your stats enough, you can get away with anything.