An OIA proposal

March 16th, 2010 at 12:37 pm by David Farrar

The Law Commission has been consulting on possible changes to the Official Information Act.

I’ve become a semi-regular user of the Official Information Act, using it to get background papers and reports on policy areas I am interested in. The was one of the best things the Muldoon Government did.

However it doesn’t work as well as it can. A dedicated government agency can delay releasing information for up to a year. You are meant to get it with 20 working days, but agencies can transfer requests (resetting the clock), give themselves a time extension, and also refuse requests forcing you to go to the Ombudsman. They do a good job, but by the time they have investigated, and made a decision, many months can have gone by.

Very rarely an agency will lie – we saw this with the Labour Department under Labour, when the Immigration Service actually lied to the Ombudsman’s Office over the existence of a report. This is incredibly rare.

Anyway a lot of information about what the Government is considering, never comes out under the OIA – because no one asked for it. And you can not ask for information too generally – such as all reports about primary health or all memos from the Ministry of Education. You need to be quite specific.

I propose that for certain high level official information, the onus on release be reversed – that the Government automatically release the information even if not asked for. Now this could not apply to all official information, as there is too much, but it could apply to information that makes Ministerial level.

My proposal would be:

That all papers and reports considered by Cabinet and/or a Cabinet Committee be automatically placed on the Internet within six months.

The specifics would be:

  1. By having the cut off at reports that go to a Cabinet or Cabinet Committee, the DPMC could be made responsible for implementing it.
  2. By having a set time period, it gives the Government a bit of breathing space to consider reports and make decisions (such as the Budget) before publication. This would not prevent people from applying under the OIA to gain something earlier.
  3. Departmental and Ministerial staff would know that their reports are 100% guaranteed to become public, so would take appropriate care with said papers.
  4. Parts of reports could still be blacked out under the OIA, but be appeal-able to the Ombudsman.
  5. It would provide a unique look at the entire work programme of the Cabinet and its Committees.
  6. If a media organisation asks for information under the OIA, they often try and sensationalise any story based on it, as they have to show something for their effort. If the info is automatically made publicly available, then news worthiness will be the main criteria (I hope)
  7. It would result in more transparent and open Government
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15 Responses to “An OIA proposal”

  1. Whoops (139 comments) says:

    Great idea.

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  2. malcolm (2,000 comments) says:

    Start small: make all department budgets open at the line-item level so we can see exactly where our money is spent.

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  3. campit (438 comments) says:

    The proposed new Auckland CCOs should also be made to comply with the OIA Act, rather than have an exemption.

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  4. toad (3,654 comments) says:

    Excellent suggestions DPF – they fit quite closely with Green Party policy:

    2. Changes to OIA

    The Official Information Act needs to be more effective so that people can access the information they want without lengthy delays and censorship. For more open government the Green Party will:

    1. Introduce legal responsibilities and penalties, under the Public Records Act or elsewhere, for individual public servants to keep good records (ie write things down, put things on the file etc).
    2. Tighten up the time limits for replies and other opportunities for delay, narrowing the exclusion provisions so that there cannot be excuses to withhold important information (notably relating to supposed commercial sensitivity, ‘free and frank advice” and security), and giving greater powers on the Ombudsman to censure agencies for non-compliance and uncooperativeness.
    3. Bring parliamentary services under the OIA — including how parties spend public money and who they hire can be seen by all, with an exemption to protect communication between constituents and MPs and to protect opposition parties from government intervention.
    4. Make it clear that there is expectation of openness and access to court records while leaving judges with discretion to deny access if reasons are given.
    5. Bring in a thirty year rule for opening of ALL public archives, as in Australia.
    6. Make sure staff have training in the proper implementation of the Act. A new body, like the former Information Authority, that could monitor administration of the Act and do training.
    7. Apply the changes above to the Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act as well.
    8. Remove charging for Official Information Act requests and require costs to be met out of Departmental baselines with an exception for vexatious, excessive and frivolous requests as well as requests for commercial gain.
    9. Include contractors and consultants to central and local government agencies under Official Information Act requirements.

    3. Cabinet decisions to be published

    People have a right to know what has been decided by Government, not just when it is announced with Government spin, but soon after Cabinet has signed it off.The Green Party will:

    1. Ensure that Cabinet minutes and decisions are published on the internet within one month of each Cabinet meeting unless there is a pressing reason not to publish (for example, the release of information that would risk our national security or is commercially confidential)
    1. When decisions or minutes are withheld, require the fact that information is being withheld, and the reason for that, to be publicly provided.
    2. Ensure that there is the ability to request a judicial review by an in-camera (closed) court, which can see the full minutes
    3. Ensure that information withheld is published as soon as the risk subsides.

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  5. NeutralObserver (91 comments) says:

    I think discussion on the OIA is a great idea. There was a good book that came out on it a couple of years ago saying it didn’t work as well as it could. Most of this was because something like 80% of OIA’s come from political party research units basically fishing. 15% from some hardcore activists (Hager et al) and about 5% NZers (not that you technically need to be a NZer to invoke the OIA). It would also be an interesting process to cost this – most Depts have to have an entire division dedicated to simply answering OIAs, plus all the drag associated with keeping every bit of paper, diary entries, emails etc accessible so you can bring to life an email conversation 4 years ago. The OIA is great but when people complain about the ‘cost’ of the public service we should get an idea of the actual cost of this all is.

    Also most delays I have experienced have not been by the Dept itself but by the Minister’s office who require even Departmental OIAs requests go through them or in the past even worse H2. But the Dept is blamed for the delay.

    Few countries have the transperancy the OIA brings to NZ Govt – remember it used to be the Official Secrets Act – I agree it could be better, some more discipline from research units would be a great start.

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  6. backster (2,000 comments) says:

    The leftwing stacked Law Commission can be relied upon to recommend reforms that this Government would live to regret.

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  7. Rex Widerstrom (5,130 comments) says:

    Hear hear, DPF.

    backster: How can more openness, no matter at whose recommendation, be something any government would “live to regret”, unless that government is up to somethign it doesn’t want it’s employers (us) knowing about?!

    toad: Well done the Greens.

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  8. expat (4,048 comments) says:

    Yeah, the default for most govt papers should be publish onto a Gov website.

    The first person to mention Gov.2.0 gets posted to Wellywood in a reel case.

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  9. MikeNZ (3,234 comments) says:

    I’m for this but would prefer your other idea DPF, namely all govt expenes of $1000 be online for the grannies to pore over.
    now we are talking.

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  10. peterwn (2,941 comments) says:

    Restrictions on use of Cabinet and Cabinet Committee minutes can be a pain in the bum. In many cases they only need to be briefly embagoed to give the PM or responsible minister a chance to make a press release. It the resolution allows money to be spent, it is desirable that other employees in district offices etc have a copy of the ‘spend’ resolution.

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  11. side show bob (3,660 comments) says:

    I wish you luck but I’m betting on pigs flying first.

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  12. willtruth (245 comments) says:

    All good ideas. NZ was a world leader with the OIA and we are way ahead of other countries like the UK, which only passed its Freedom of Information Act in 2000.

    I do wonder if people realize the downsides of the OIA though. Government Departments now are less likely to conduct rigorous critiques of their own policy. They may think its a good policy, but want someone to do a devil’s advocate report on all the possible things that might be wrong with it, just in case. But now they might not do that because they don’t want the media getting hold of such a report and beating them over the head with it.

    That’s a shame. But it’s still better to be open.

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  13. homosexual_kiwiblog_contributor (8 comments) says:

    Good I like this. This is one area that I don’t mind an increase in spending.

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  14. NeutralObserver (91 comments) says:

    “Winning voters one at a time” – aka the Chauvel story – 144 comments

    “OIA proposals” 13 comments

    F**king sad.

    sd

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  15. NeutralObserver (91 comments) says:

    “Winning voters one at a time” – aka the Chauvel story – 144 comments

    “OIA proposals” – 13 comments

    F**king sad.

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