Treasury leading the way with OIA

February 20th, 2015 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Transtasman reports:

The Treasury is trialling the publication of its responses to selected OIA requests. The proactive release of individuals requests follow on from material such as Budget papers and Briefings to Incoming Ministers being released in bulk fashion for some time. Initial OIA requests released range from the Debt Management Office’s replacement of its Matriarch IT system through to Govt funding of NZ America’s Cup Teams. The argument for release is since the work has already been done to respond to the request and compile the information it might as well be more widely released.

I’ve been pushing for this for several years. A lot of very interesting information is released under the OIA, but is never seen by the public except the requester. The FYI tool is a great private sector initiative which allows responses to be viewed if it is used.

But what I’d like to see is:

  1. Govt establishes a
  2. All substantive responses to an OIA request are uploaded to the site a week after they are sent to the requester
  3. Uploaded documents are tagged with subject and portfolios tags to allow easy browsing

Good to see Treasury heading down this route of proactive release. I hope it leads to other agencies following.


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Goff interfered with OIA request

September 9th, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn blogs:

Phil Goff was interviewed by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security today, and in the process admitted on oath to unlawfully delaying an OIA request:

When I spoke to the Director of the SIS who phoned me suggesting he intended to release the documents immediately, he was coy about whether he knew of the identity of the Mr Slater who had requested the documents sought under the OIA. He then acknowledged that he did know who Cameron Slater was. The documents were to be released immediately until I challenged why the SIS was acting in the way he proposed. He at that point suggested he would delay the release for a number of days.
So, just to be clear, Goff didn’t like the identity of the requester, so he demanded a delay. And Tucker gave it to him. That is unlawful. The OIA is clear: a response must be made“as soon as reasonably practicable”. The information clearly could have been released immediately, so it should have been. Goff (and Tucker) has behaved unlawfully by having it delayed.

Still, Goff’s frankness is illuminating: he believes, contrary to law, that not liking the identity of the requester is a reason for delaying a response. Which shows perfectly why he is unfit to hold office and should never be allowed to control an OIA process ever again.

Goff stated he had not been briefed on the Israeli tourists, when he clearly had been. He then tried to suppress the evidence he had been briefed. And now he claims it was wrong for the Government to release information which contradicts him. And this is the man who got up in Parliament and read out extracts from a highly confidential note take by an MFAT staffer at a meeting with National MPs and US Senators. Goff is many things, but consistent is not one of them.

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Chief Ombudsman to review OIA compliance

August 28th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

The Chief Ombudsman will launch an investigation into the way the Official Information Act is being used after the election and will include a probe into ministerial offices as part of the inquiry. …

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem said issues which would be examined included government departments having to seek “sign off” from their ministers before releasing information when there was no reason to do so.

She said there was “excessive reference upwards for approval” to release information when there was no good reason for doing so. …

“I have observed unnecessary steps and referrals upwards. I have heard of at least five layers of approval before something can be released. That’s absurd.”

She said the unnecessary upwards delays included referrals to ministers for approval to release information. There were also offices which had “delayed things beyond what is reasonable” while others did “incredibly well”.

“There’s actually fundamentally nothing wrong with the Act. What is wrong is the execution.

I think this is very welcome, regardless of who is in Government. Some sensitive material will always involve informing the Minister’s office under no surprises, but there probably is too many layers and hoops to go through.

I actually support amending the OIA so all Cabinet level documents get released proactively after say six months, even if not requested.

Dame Beverley, who is president of the International Ombudsman Institute, said she had been tempted to publish a league table of best-to-worst agencies, as other bodies did abroad.

“We haven’t resorted to that in New Zealand but each day that goes by it becomes more tempting.” She said the framework of the inquiry had been completed and it would be launched in the next few months.

They should. In the absence of official stats, bloggers such as No Right Turn compile their own league tables. But would be better to have official ones.

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Goff tried to suppress the fact he was briefed

August 22nd, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

He said Dr Tucker told him about Slater’s request for the documents on July 26, the day he received it.

Mr Goff said Dr Tucker said he intended to release that day, “and I hit the roof”.

He had told Dr Tucker it was “unbelievable that you would contemplate doing anything like that – that draws you right into the political arena”.

He said Dr Tucker then agreed to delay the release for a week.

Now think about this.

Phil Goff told the media and the public he had not been briefed on a security issue.

He had been.

The SIS told him that they planned to release the briefing note, after redactions, as it had been requested under the Official Information Act, and there were no legal grounds to refuse it.

Goff hit the roof and heavied the SIS into delaying the release. He thinks that documents showing he was briefed when he claimed not to have been, should not be released to protect him.

And Labour are trying to claim some sort of moral high ground!!


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Auckland DHB thinks they are above the law

July 18th, 2014 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Andy Tookey filed an OIA with the Auckland District Health Board for a copy of a slide presentation by the Organ Donor Service to a taxpayer funded official meeting.

They refused the request on the grounds of privacy, even though no names were requested.

Tookey went to the Ombudsman who said it must be released.

They then declined on the basis it would be made public in six months time.

Again the Ombudsman indicated he would rule against them.

So what did the Organ Donor Service do?

They deleted the information.


The Minister should tell the Auckland DHB Board that he will start sacking board members if this happens again. It is totally unacceptable to delete information that is the subject of an OIA request. It is in fact illegal. A prosecution could be justified.

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Time to extend the OIA!

May 26th, 2014 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters is calling for an inquiry into finances at a $30 million-a-year South Auckland Maori disability support services trust, claiming evidence of hundreds of thousands of dollars in “irregular payments” that have “crippled” the organisation.

Te Roopu Taurima O Manukau Trust has income of $30.6 million a year, 500 staff and provides services to 243 people.

But Mr Peters said he’d received information alleging the trust was insolvent and had “problems related to improper processes, questionable payments, doctored invoices and the employment of a former Customs officer earlier jailed for smuggling methamphetamine”.

He said about $250,000 had been paid to two consultancy firms for financial and human resources advice “but neither firm appears to have obvious qualifications in these areas”.

“It is clear there are serious financial irregularities, like a bakery company being paid $2000 to rewire a clothesline and a payment to another company for security systems that did not exist.”

Now as the allegations are from Winston there’s a 50/50 chance they are made up, or that they have substance. They’ll come out in time.

On the wider issue, the Taxpayers’ Union has said:

“Unlike government agencies, these groups are not required to comply with the Official Information Act. This means that too often taxpayer money disappears into a void.”

“Too often there is little transparency and accountability when taxpayer money and trusts come together. The only opportunity to see even a fraction of what really goes on is when someone leaks documents, as appears to be the case here.”

“We are only going to see these kinds of accusations, time and time again. We call on the Government to commit to reform of the Official Information Act so that it covers these sorts of groups.” 

Not surprisingly, I support this.

There are scores of NGOs out there that are almost entirely Government funded, yet they do not have the same transparency obligations as crown agencies. This allows millions of dollars to be spent with limited transparency.

What I would propose is a law that any organisation that is (say) over 90% funded by taxpayers should come under the Official Information Act.

This would actually improve those organisations, as knowing that their expenditure could be OIA’s, would incentivise them to spend taxpayer money more responsibly.


The Banks file

February 18th, 2014 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The Ombudsman has ordered the release of statements given to police by outgoing ACT MP John Banks, ruling it is in the public interest.

But the statements would not be handed over until after Banks’ trial over allegations he knowingly filed a false electoral return following his failed 2010 bid for the Auckland mayoralty.

Seems a sensible decision by the Ombudsman. However I do wonder about the precedent. Must statements made in the Hughes assault investigation be publicly release also, based on this precedent?

In a decision released today, Ombudsman Ron Paterson said police were right to refuse some parts of the request, but not to withhold the statements in full.

In their response to the request, police said public interest had to be balanced with the privacy of the person, particularly if allegations remained unproven.

When there is a balance, I favour the public interest.

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Focusing on the big issues

February 15th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

Mr Finlayson and Justice Minister Judith Collins were among several ministers to receive Official Information Act requests from the Labour Party about whether they had a dress code, or had issued dress instructions to their staff.

It is understood Attorney General Chris Finlayson’s office was a target of the OIA after speculation he had banned ‘casual Friday.’ It is well known he frowned upon casual Fridays in his previous life as a lawyer. A spokesman for Mr Finlayson confirmed they did not have an official casual Friday but denied Mr Finlayson had banned it, saying it had never been discussed. He said there was no dress code.

“There is no dress code, but it is a professional environment. Certain clothing choices would be discouraged, such as bare feet or ‘Annette King for Rongotai’ t-shirts.” He pointed out having a casual Friday would technically be a dress code.

“That would be a stipluation of something you wear at work.”

In her reply to Labour, Ms Collins said she did not have a dress code and the request was clearly a “cry for help” from Labour for dress tips.

“You have now sent me two requests for this information which have been processed and answered. Most taxpayers would consider this a gross waste of taxpayer funds. I, however, am willing to believe your repeated request reflects a genuine cry for help and is recognition of the collective good dress sense shown in this office.”

Knowing some of the staff in that office, I can testify that they do have an excellent collective dress sense. Paula Bennett’s office and Amy Adams’ office also score very highly :-)

A spokesman for Labour said the request was sent to several ministerial offices because it had been told some staff were spoken to about their clothing. “We were looking into some issues concerning staff treatment in ministerial offices and wanted to see if it was isolated or reasonably wide spread.”

I encourage Labour to keep focusing on the big issues!

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Obsolete coins and notes

October 4th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

A reader, David Buckingham, has sent me a copy of an OIA request he made to the Reserve Bank asking how many obsolete coins and notes have they received in the last three years. The Reserve Bank will still take old currency, even when no longer legal tender. In fact a couple of years ago I did a clean up of old coins at my place and took them to the reserve Bank who direct credited the value to my bank account.

What is surprising is how many old notes and coins are out there. Here is the number of coins and note returned from 2011 on:

  • 1c coins – 142,276
  • 2c coins – 154,760
  • 5c coins – 1,789,596
  • $1 notes – 25,285
  • $2 notes – 41,330

But the RBNZ is still getting some pre-decimal currency is. They also have received:

  • 10/- notes – 167
  • £1 notes – 187
  • £5 notes – 188
  • £10 notes – 8

And some old coins:

  • Halfpennies – 7,080
  • Pennies – 13,352
  • Threepennies – 90,676
  • Halfcrowns – 31,320

Amazing how long old currency stays in circulation.

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Complaining over competent political management

April 8th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports Annette King:

The Ministry of Health process for handling Official Information Act requests has been called “laundering” after different ways of treating requests from the public, media and politicians were revealed. …

The Herald sought the ministry process showing warnings for officials about releasing “politically sensitive or controversial” details to the public. It has six possible checks for releasing information before it was sent to Mr Ryall’s office, where the minister and staff were given five days to review it.

When people from Parliament sought information, the number of steps increased to eight, and to nine when the OIA request came from media. …

Opposition health spokeswoman Annette King has labelled the scheme an “OIA laundering process” designed to keep information from the public.

Oh this is silly, Keeping the Minister’s office in the loop when Opposition MPs or media file OIA requests is a no brainer. There is a world of difference between an OIA request from Mrs Smith-Jones wanting to know how much something about her local hospital and from say the Opposition Spokesperson asking for a copy of a briefing paper to the Minister.

What matters is not the process,, but the outcomes. Does keeping the Minister in the loop mean the Ministry of Health is not meeting the 20 day deadline for responding?

No Right Turn compiled OIA stats in 2012, and 85% of Ryall’s OIA responses are done within 20 days, with an average of 16.5 days. Now this is for OIAs to him, not the Department, but it suggests a good compliance regime.

If Annette wants to score some points against Ryall, she needs to do far better than complaining about internal processes which are simply competent political management.

What I’d be interested in is what the compliance rate is for the Ministry of Health in terms of the 20 day deadline, and how often do they decline information and get over-ruled by the Ombudsman? That *might* help her to make a case, but this silly story just highlights how competent Tony Ryall is.


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Isaac responds to PPTA on OIA and Charter Schools

March 15th, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Catherine Isaac the chairwoman of the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua working group, responds to the PPTA guest post calling for charter schools to be included in the Official Information Act.

 It was only last year that NZEI argued schools should ignore the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA) requests regarding National Standards.  They publicly advocated for an OIA exemption for National Standards data.  I am pleased the Education Unions suddenly have a profound new respect for the OIA. 

Mr Haig of the PPTA claims the support of Hon Richard Prebble in his assertion that jurisdiction of the Ombudsman should be extended to Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua (PSKH) under the OIA and the Ombudsmen Act 1975 (OA).  

Richard Prebble may be retired but fortunately he’s still very much around, so I thought I would ask him.  Here is his response to Mr Haig.

“I introduced the first Freedom of Information Bill into Parliament so we could see what the Government was up to.  I have never supported the right of the state to spy on private organisations or citizens.”

“While I am at it, I strongly support Partnership Schools.  I’m not surprised Maori are welcoming the initiative since the state school system has failed them.  The PPTA must also take some of the responsibility.  Instead of opposing Partnership Schools, the PPTA should acknowledge that they are most unlikely to be worse than state schools have been for Maori and they are likely to be much better.”

Tom Haig was unwise to cite Richard Prebble to support his case, but the rest of Mr Haig’s arguments are no better.

The decision not to extend the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman to PSKH is right both in principle and in practice. 

The purpose of the OIA and the OA is to restrain the executive branch of government and other crown entities by providing access to “official” information and providing for an investigatory role over government administrative decisions.  Both the OA and OIA were introduced because of the significant power the state can wield over the lives of citizens. 

Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua are not subject to the OIA and OA because they are not part of government – they are non-governmental organisations.   

Sponsors can be either non-profit or for profit organisations, incorporated or non-incorporated, and might be community or iwi organisations or charitable trusts.   They may or may not get all their funding from government, but even if they do, that is not a principled reason for PSKH to be covered by the OIA and OA.

Over 5000 educational organisations receive full or partial funding from government but are not subject to the OIA and OA.   Thousands of other organisations providing services to the government are fully or partially publically funded and are not subject to the OIA or OA.  The reason is that they are non-governmental organisations.

Somewhat inconsistently, the Ombudsman made it clear to the Select Committee that they were not advocating extending their jurisdiction to the other 5000 educational organisations, only to PSKH.  

In an unfortunate analogy, the Ombudsmen said PSKH were like private prisons.  In a similar vein Mr Haig conflates compulsory education with compulsory attendance.  Both are wrong.

PSKH are not similar to a private management contract of a prison.  Prisons, be they public or under a private management contract, are uniquely coercive.  Prisoners don’t get a choice of prison and cannot leave at will.  Prisoners are there because of the coercive power of the state. That is why the OIA and OA apply and rightly so.   But no one will be forced to attend a PSKH, nor teach at one, and all will be free to leave.

The Ombudsmen offered an example of a three year parental dispute with a state school as another argument for the OIA and OA to apply.  On the face of it, three years seems a long time to come to a resolution when the education of a child is at stake.  Mr Haig’s post outlines a state school dispute invoking the Human Rights Act 1993 (which applies to PSKH).   The Ombudsman expressed a further concern over the potential improper use of the statutory power to expel, suspend and stand down a student.   

The PSKH model offers significant powers to parents to protect them and their children.

Not only can parents receive meaningful information about their child, the contract provides for an independent review mechanism that every parent can access.  This will apply to all disputes including disputes over the use of the power to expel, suspend or stand down a child.    

The sponsor will be able to tailor the dispute resolution process to provide for a speedy, efficient and independent way of resolving the dispute that focuses on the particular educational needs of the child.   This should provide for a better, more  timely mechanism for dispute resolution than the general jurisdiction of the Ombudsmen. 

The PSKH model has been designed to be transparent and more accountable.

Detailed reporting against specific, measurable academic , student engagement and other performance goals will be required as part of a PSKH’s contract with the Crown.   They will have to publish annual audited accounts.  Furthermore, any information held by the Ministry of Education, the Minister and the Authorisation Board will be subject to the OIA and OA, as these entities are part of government.  In addition, the Secretary of Education can ask for any additional information over and above that required under the sponsorship contract.  PSKH will be scrutinised by both the Education Review Office and the Authorisation Board who will apply a specific evaluation framework.  And unlike state schools they can be closed quickly for non-performance.

PSKH have a significantly more rigorous and effective accountability model than state schools.  That is why, on balance, the PSKH Working Group considered that subjecting PSKH to compliance obligations and costs under the OIA and OA over and above all their other obligations is unnecessary, would not advance the interests of children, parents or taxpayers and may detract from the vital educational mission of Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua. 

Thanks to Catherine for her reply.

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Guest Post: PPTA on the OIA and Charter Schools

March 12th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

A guest post by Tom Haig of the PPTA on the issue of whether charter schools should be covered by the Official Information Act:

Funny how history turns out eh? Back in 1977 a young Labour MP took on Muldoon, promoting a ‘Freedom of Information Bill’ to challenge the principle of the ‘Official Secrets Act’ which meant that, unless otherwise specified, all state information was kept secret. That Labour MP was Richard Prebble, and in 1982, following his first attempt five years before, the Official Information Act overturned the Official Secrets Act. Fast-forward 36 years, and Prebble’s parliamentary heir is hastily scrabbling for reasons why the OIA should be undermined to promote the politically expedient project of charter schools. 

One of the aspects of the Bill introducing charter schools that attracted a lot of attention at Select Committee was section 158X which would grant them exemption from the Official Information Act and Ombudsman Act. Three justifications are put forward for this, and I don’t believe the Richard Prebble of 1977 would have had a bar of any of them.

The first reason, advanced in the Cabinet papers describing the establishment of charter schools is to ‘avoid vexatious and costly complaints’. This is a terrible argument. Firstly on the practical side – yes, addressing OIA requests can take time and effort, but organisations are allowed to bill for their reasonable costs. Secondly, if this is allowed to stand, shouldn’t every government department mired in scandal be allowed to opt out for just this reason? Finally, charter schools would be within their rights to refuse to answer frivolous or vexatious requests, and if the Ombudsman agreed it was a worthless request then they’d be able to throw it out.

The second justification is that exemption is consistent with the status of the sponsor as a community organisation. This is problematic, as it’s about the type of organisation providing the service, rather than what the service is. By extension, this could mean that if the government was to contract out all variety of services to community or private organisations the extension of OIA coverage would shrink. Locking up core state services in contractual agreements with private providers is risky for numerous reasons; this is certainly one of them.

The third justification is that charter schools are analogous to early childhood or private training providers, which are not subject to these acts. However, there’s a glaring difference between these sort of providers and schools – and that is the aspect of compulsion.  As a ‘classic liberal’ party, Act should be well aware of this distinction – protecting citizens from the power of the state is after all one of their main concerns. Students have to go to school, while going to early childhood education or tertiary is a choice, and as such the role of consumer is quite different from that of a child at school.

So what would it mean for students and families at charter schools if they’re not covered? For one thing, the OIA and Ombudsman Act provide important protection in regards to decisions made about them, by giving them access to the reasons for those decisions, which the Privacy Act does not. Similarly, students and their families, or teachers at the school, or the wider public, will have no automatic right of access to the school’s policies, which could lead to decisions made by school managers seeming arbitrary and unfair.

This issue of making school policies public had some coverage recently following cases of schools not allowing students to take same-sex partners to their balls. In 2011 Blogger Matthew Taylor wrote to secondary schools around the country asking for their policies on this, a request which threw a number of school principals into a fluster.  As they do in such situations, some brought this concern to the PPTA, and we advised them that they should give the information – it’s a perfectly reasonable request and there’s no good reason not to make it public.

I’ll finish with a quote from the Ombudsman’s submission to the Select Committee:

“Clause 158X of the Education Bill runs the risk of creating a state funded schooling regime which is shrouded in secrecy and is unaccountable. This is likely to hamper the ability of partnership schools to achieve their central goal of achieving better outcomes for students. Applying the Official Information Act and Ombudsmen Act to partnership schools will assist partnership schools in exercising their statutory functions, enhance transparency and accountability, bring New Zealand into line with international models and avoid the constitutional anomaly inherent in the current Bill.”

Removing this clause won’t make me support charter schools. But if they’re going to exist there’s no good reason that they should be shrouded in secrecy. And if the more ideologically consistent members of the Act party were to search their scruples carefully, I suspect that they would agree.

Personally I’m not convinced by the arguments for charter schools to be excluded from the Official Information Act and Ombudsmen Act, and think that as they are primarily taxpayer funded they should be included in both Acts. I hope the select committee recommends changes to that effect.

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The information must be released

February 9th, 2013 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Alex Fensome at Stuff reports:

Film giant Warner Brothers has told the Government it will jeopardise future film investment if it releases “sensitive information” about the deal to keep production of The Hobbit in New Zealand.

Ombudsman David McGee has ordered the release of 18 previously withheld Government documents about the 2010 deal.

They include emails between Warner Bros’ New Line studio, Sir Peter Jackson’s Wingnut Films and the Government about the union dispute that threatened to take production offshore.

The Government, which had refused to release the documents, can now prevent their publication only by issuing an order in council, signed by the governor-general. Such a power has never been used.

It is not unusual for an information release to go to the Ombudsman for a ruling. As far as I am aware the Government has not indicated in any way that it would over-rule the Ombudsman. But it goes without saying, that of course they should not.

In Mr McGee’s ruling, New Line warns that, “if the Government is not willing to adequately protect this sensitive information from disclosure, this will operate as a major disincentive to motion picture studios as well as local and foreign talent to utilise New Zealand as a location for future productions”.

It said the documents reflected “negotiations and innermost thinking, including certain strategic decisions, legal and personal opinions, offers from third-party governments and other private information”. If made public, the information would damage New Line’s business relationships and impair its ability to negotiate with unions and third parties, it said.

There are a number of grounds on which information can be with-held. The Ombudsman is the authority that decides on if the information qualifies. He has decided it does not. Companies should know when corresponding with Government that pretty much anything they say is likely to be made public unless it qualifies to be with-held.

Prime Minister John Key said the Government was “quite relaxed” about releasing the paperwork and he expected it to happen.

It had not released the information in the previous two years because of commercial negotiations during the filming of the movies.

While he acknowledged that Warner Bros and Wingnut did not want the information released, he said it was unlikely the Government would use its veto powers.



OIA and Parliament

February 7th, 2013 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Isaac Davidson writes in the NZ Herald:

The Government’s decision not to extend the Official Information Act to Parliament is “entirely specious”, a former Prime Minister and president of the Law Commission says.

I’m amused that so many supporters of opening Parliament to the OIA, refused to do so when they were in Parliament and could have done so.

In announcing the proposals on Monday, Justice Minister Judith Collins said New Zealand had an open government by international standards and Parliament already made a great deal of information available.

She told the Herald yesterday: “While it may be tempting for a Government to have access to Opposition parties’ research and funding data, extending the OIA to include the offices of Parliament would see Opposition parties unnecessarily scrutinised.”

A lot of people don’t realise this. Ministers are already subject to the OIA, so extending it would actually be giving the Government the ability to file OIAs to the Opposition seeking draft policy papers, staff advice, spending details etc.

The Green Party supported the proposal to extend the OIA to parliamentary business, but the Labour Party did not.

My view is that the OIA should apply to Parliament for financial matters, but not documents and communications. As stated above, I think it would be chilling and unfair to Opposition MPs to have to battle OIA requests around their political strategy, draft policies etc. However their expenditure of public money is a different matter, and hence my compromise is to have financial documents come under the OIA. It is worth noting of course that since 2009 there has been a huge increase in financial transparency already.

Labour’s open government spokeswoman, Clare Curran, said her party instead supported proactive release of documents to a dedicated website.

That is a good idea.

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NRT on OIA review

February 5th, 2013 at 4:15 pm by David Farrar

I’ve been meaning to blog on the OIA review but have not had time to re-read the Law Commission report and see what parts the Govt is doing, and what has been kicked to touch. Idiot/Savant has though and blogs:

Back in July, the Law Commission published its review of the Official Information Act [PDF]. While it did suggest a number of important and useful changes to the Act – greater guidance from the Ombudsman, a new Information Commissioner to handle education and reporting, extending the Act to cover parliament and the courts – the overall thrust of the review was towards greater secrecy and less transparency. Given these conclusions, I would be quite happy if the review died quietly in a ditch somewhere and was forgotten.

And that is pretty much what has happened. Yesterday, the government finally published its response to the review, in which they said that tight budgets and existing legislative priorities ruled out the full rewrite the Law Commission wanted, and that they are just going to tinker around the edges a bit. Which given the Law Commission’s recommendations, can only be regarded as rearguard victory.

I/S also notes:

What we will be getting is better guidance from the Ombudsman, and an extension of the Act to cover the courts (both wins), combined with broader “commercial sensitivity” clauses (a loss, though Steven price thinks it won’t cover anything the Act isn’t already stretched to cover). The government will also be advancing changes around privacy in its review of the Privacy Act. So overall a narrow win, especially compared with the alternative.

I wasn’t as negative on the Law Commission review as I/S, so I hope some of their other recommendations do make some progress. But it is fair to say it is not a legislative priority.

There is one major recommendation that has not been responded to, and I would like to see the Government adopt – that some information be pro-actively released. Often you don’t know what information is there to ask for.

I’d like to see an automatic pro-active release requirement for all Cabinet level information. It might be say six months after authorship to allow Government time to make decisions, and of course normal rules would apply for exemptions. but wouldn’t it be great to have all Cabinet  and Cabinet committee information automatically released in due course.

if the Government doesn’t pick this up, there could be an opportunity for Opposition parties to make this a policy, and implement it when they get a turn in Government.

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The OIA is for all

January 14th, 2013 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Sam Sachdeva at The Press reports:

Tobacco companies are trying to pry confidential documents from government departments as they battle a possible crackdown on their trade.

Really? Are they breaking into offices? Blackmailing officials? Stealing secrets?

Information obtained by the Sunday Star-Times revealed legal representatives for several tobacco companies filed at least nine Official Information Act (OIA) requests to the Ministry of Health in the past two years for documentation relating to plans to ban brand marks and logos on cigarette packets.

Oh my God. A company asked under the Official Information Act for government papers regarding a proposed policy which would have a massive impact on their business. What a scandal.

Here’s what even funnier. The information on these OIA requests would have been obtained itself under the OIA. So whomever planted this story has used the OIA to attack someone else for using the OIA.

The companies’ requests covered a wide array of information, including documents relating to:

All communication about plain packaging between the Ministry of Health and its Australian, Canadian and British equivalents;

how plain packaging would affect youth and adult smoking rates in New Zealand;

how plain packaging would impact on the intellectual property rights of tobacco manufacturers;

and whether plain packaging would violate any of New Zealand’s trade and investment treaty obligations.

This seems absolutely appropriate requests to make. In fact such info should be public automatically.

British American Tobacco was the most prolific company, with its legal representatives filing six OIA requests during the period.

Six over two years. Hell I sometimes file six OIA requests in a single month.

The requests were largely declined, with Turia citing the “substantial collation or research” required to gather much of the information and the confidentiality of some documents.

However, several Cabinet papers related to plain packaging reform were released, while the companies were told that other information it had requested would soon be publicly available.

The director of anti-tobacco group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), Ben Youdan, believed the companies were trying to “hold up and bog down” civil servants who had to process the requests.

Nonsense. It annoys me that a taxpayer funded lobby group is complaining about the cost to taxpayers of government departments obeying the OIA law.

If the companies were filing a request every few weeks, they may have a point. But nine requests over two years is stuff all.

If I wrote this story I would ask the MoH how many OIA requests in total they received over two years, and what proportion came from tobacco companies. I’d also ask ASH how many OIA requests have they made.

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Shearer makes it up

October 12th, 2012 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

David Shearer is sadly descending into the Trevor Mallard rulebook, and making things up. Andrea Vance at Stuff reports:

Earlier today Labour claimed a tape existed of Key giving speech to staff in cafeteria at the Government Communications Security Bureau’s Wellington headquarters in which he made a quip about Dotcom.

The prudent thing to do if you hear a claim like this, is to substantiate it. You file an Official Information Act request for the tape (or at least confirming the existence of it) or as an MP you can file a written question. Then when you get the answer, you trumpet it.

But just making stuff up, and trumpeting it in a press release, is risking being the Boy who cried wold.

Fletcher said “exhaustive enquries” at the GCSB have revealed no video tape.

And Shearer doesn’t even realise

Labour leader David Shearer had called on the GCSB or Key to confirm if the recording existed.

“There is one way to clear this up. The Prime Minister should give the green light to the agency to release any and all unclassified material about the visit and John Key’s comments to staff,” he said.

Does Shearer not even know the law? The PM is not needed to give a green light. The Official Information Act applies to the GCSB. They are listed in Schedule 1. Unless the material is classified, or otherwise meets a criteria for non-release, the GCSB is required by law to release the material. Also the Ombudsman can investigate and request and decision.

Newstalk ZB also has an interesting story on where Labour may be getting their information from.

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The Banks file

September 12th, 2012 at 6:41 pm by David Farrar

Below is the file on the Banks investigation, released by the Police under the OIA. What is interesting is that the donations appear to be a thank you for Banks previous offer to advocate residency on behalf of Dotcom.

The highlight is the statement by Kim Dotcom that when Banks met his wife Mona, Banks said “Your wife is the most beautiful women I have ever seen”. Dotcom comments that he was surprised by this comment. Not because his wife isn’t beautiful, but because Mrs Banks was present!

Docs for Disclosure

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Ombudsman tells schools to release the data

August 8th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Schools have been told to disregard the advice of a primary teachers’ union and instead release controversial National Standards performance information.

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem has written to all schools after some brushed off requests for the data with a pro-forma response provided by the New Zealand Educational Institute.

Dame Beverley said the advice NZEI had offered “conflicted” with that provided by the New Zealand School Trustees Association.

“In my view boards of trustees are entitled to rely on the advice conveyed by the NZSTA. However, boards that rely on the advice conveyed by the NZEI risk an adverse finding being made against them by an Ombudsman under the [law],” she said.

Schools that had acted, or were considering acting, “in accordance with the NZEI advice” should reconsider, she said.

Those that continued to refuse or extend release of information would face an investigation, which “may find that a board has acted unreasonably or contrary to the law”.

Schools are publicly funded and must obey the law around public entities – simple.

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No Right Turn on OIA

August 18th, 2011 at 9:34 am by David Farrar

Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn blogs:

At the beginning of the month I commented on preliminary results from my annual OIA performance survey, which has seen Ministerial performance jump significantly since last year. I’m still waiting on a few Ministers (new Ministers had to be sent a two-stage request, and I failed to notice that Tariana Turia refuses to answer her Ministerial email), but here’s another improvement. Last year, Gerry Brownlee was the worst Minister, answering only 39.7% of requests within the statutory 20-day limit. This year, he’s boosted that to 54.8%.

Credit is due to I/S for collating and publishing the stats. It is a valuable public service, and is part of the reason I am sure there has been an improvement.

Gerry has of course had a lot on his plate of late, but in a reply to I/S he notes:

Notwithstanding this, dealing with requests for information under the Official Information Act is a matter that I take seriously and I have instructed my office to instigate a thorough review of the systems and processes used to manage and track requests made under the Official Information Act.


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Ombudsmen Annual Report

October 14th, 2010 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The 2009/10 annual report is here. One extract:

In 2009/10 we received 164 delay complaints against Ministers and central government agencies. This is down 23 per cent on 2008/09 numbers, and 43 per cent on 2007/08 numbers, and is the lowest number of delay complaints received since 1993/94

That’s great – suggest there has perhaps been a significant culture change.

The report provides a good breakdown of which agencies had the most complaints. However it does not report which agencies had the most complaints upheld against them – which could be the more relevant stat. One persistent complainer could warp the stats for an agency.

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Manukau City Council refuses to reveal dinner attendees until after election

October 6th, 2010 at 5:36 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Secret details of an $810 dinner Manukau mayor Len Brown charged to his council credit card are unlikely to be revealed before this weekend’s local body election, the Ombudsman says.

Why not you ask? Do they not have to obey the law?

In what was possibly the most memorable part of this year’s local body election campaign, Brown gave an emotional and passionate address to his council colleagues about the dinner. He punched his head and chest and said he would “never” reveal who attended.

“Will I give you the names? Never. I want to tell you that, I feel so intensely strong about this.”

So Len’s position is clear – he will never ever voluntarily reveal the names, despite ratepayers paying for the dinner. But Manukau City Council knows and they can be ordered to do so under the Official Information Act.

The Ombudsman received a number of complaints about Brown’s refusal to name those who he took to Volare.

It was hoped a decision would be made by the end of this week, but that is now unlikely.

“We are pushing this as fast as we can,” an Ombudsman spokswoman said today.

“There has been huge controversy around this. We understand people wanted to know about this before they voted.”

However the Ombudsman was required, by law, to consult with the Privacy Commissioner before reaching a decision.

This week commissioner Marie Shroff asked a set of questions of Manukau City Council about the dinner.

She wanted to know “whether the attendees knew they were accompanying Brown in his capacity as mayor” and “did they know the dinner was being charged to his mayoral credit card”.

Reasonable questions to ask. And very easy to answer.

But the council’s chief executive Leigh Auton told the Ombudsman there would not be enough time to answer the questions before the election.

Outraegous. My God – this involves around 30 minutes of phone calls, and they have 500 or so staff. One has to suspect this is a deliberate obstruction. Why are they so desperate to not name those who had dinner shouted?Is it because their identities would be in conflict with the reason giving for paying?

Auton was first notified of the complaint against his council in August.

It is understood an urgent telephone conference was being held this afternoon between the Ombudsman and Auton.

Sadly, even if it comes out tomorrow, it will be too late. But the Ombudsman should not reward the Council for stonewalling, and order the names released this week.

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OIA Reform

September 30th, 2010 at 10:49 am by David Farrar

Yet to read the full discussion paper, but on the basis of the Herald report, the direction looks promising:

The paper strongly supported greater use of proactively releasing information, an idea that is gaining traction in the Open Labour NZ debate on a more transparent Government.

I have been pushing this issue for well over a year, and delighted to see the Law Commission of a similar view. The Internet age makes it practical and desirable for information to be released, even in the absence of a specific request. The problem with the status quo, is people often don’t know that a document exists, so they can’t request it.

Talking of Open Labour, they have now distilled 63 suggested actions for open government from their consultation. You can vote on them here.

I’d urge readers to vote, and vote in good faith, on what they would like to see as policy. You do need to register to vote, so if you get permission denied, go to the top right and register.

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No Right Turn’s OIA study

August 31st, 2010 at 12:07 pm by David Farrar

NZPA have done a story, based on No Right Turn’s OIA study. This is a good example of how blogs can do good quality research and get stories into the media based on their worth:

Nearly all ministers fail to supply information requested under the Official Information Act (OIA) in the required time, a study by a blogsite has found.

Idiot/Savant of No Right Turn, a left-wing blogsite, gathered information using the Act over the past three months on how requests for information were handled.

The fastest answering ministers were: Chris Finlayson (who is Attorney-General, and has responsibility for Treaty negotiations and arts) who answered all requests within the 20 working day deadline and Maurice Williamson (a minister outside Cabinet responsible for a range of portfolios including building, customs and statistics) who answered 96.1 percent on time.

The slowest were:

* Gerry Brownlee (energy, economic development, leader of the house) — 39.7 percent on-time.

* Judith Collins (police, corrections, veterans’s affairs) — 48.3 percent.

* Tim Groser (trade, climate change negotiations) and Jonathan Coleman (immigration, broadcasting, tourism) — 50 percent.

* Kate Wilkinson (labour, conservation, food safety) — 52.3 percent.

* Phil Heatley (fisheries, housing) –54.2 percent.

* Paula Bennett (social development and employment, youth affairs) refused to cooperate with the survey.

The blogger said it was appalling that ministers were not ensuring they met the legal time limit.

Hopefully the sunlight will encourage more Ministers to meet the deadlines in future. They are a deadline – not a target.

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Open Government 2010

June 28th, 2010 at 12:19 pm by David Farrar

Have just taken part in a panel discussion at the Open Government 2010 (un)conference. The panel had some Govt and academic people on it, myself and Trevor Mallard (standing in for Clare Curran). Steven Joyce opened the conference earlier in the day.

There is a lively twitter feed that you can follow here.

I put a number of ideas to the conference, which I thought I would blog here also for feedback

  1. A Minister of Information (or Open Government) whose job is to lead a culture change in Government focused on getting as much information out to the public as possible, now that we have the tools to scrutinise and analyse it.
  2. Each agency to have what I call an internal ombudsman. Their role isn’t to adjudicate on external requests for information, but to act as champions for getting information out to the public, and making sure this is in the DNA of all IT projects etc.
  3. Set up an site which has the responses to every OIA request made to a govt agency put up there 48 hours after it gets sent to the primary receipient
  4. All cabinet and cabinet committee level papers to be published on DPMC website (subject to normal OIA rules) automatically within six months of receipt.
  5. Set up a central map site where data (maybe using Google Maps) can be viewed, such as census data, deprivation data, housing data etc.
  6. Require all future govt agency databases to have a public access component to them.

What I am referring to with No 6 is databases such as the Justice offending database or the WINZ benefits database. You’d remove personal identification data, but give the public the ability to query the databases directly.

At present trying to get data on reoffending rates means you need to request it under the OIA, waits ages for it, and then if you want more data, do it again and it takes months and months. Think if you could query the database directly and ask it what proportion of first time offenders who are convicted of burglary reoffend? Or if you could ask the WINZ database how many people have been on a benefit for more than 2 years?

I’d even like to have Treasury give people access to their budget modelling software so people can model for themselves what a 0.5% increase in economic growth will do to the fiscals, or an increase in the age of superannuation etc.

Talking of the idea for a government OIA site, a group of clever people have put together their own site which can be used to send off an OIA request to an agency, and publish the response when received. It’s in beta mode so don’t use it yet, but a nice example of the sort of thinking we need.

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