Radio NZ and Hager

July 8th, 2016 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

A reader has sent me this OIA response from Radio NZ regarding their collaboration with TVNZ and Nicky Hager. It outlines how taxpayer money was spent on paying for an exclusive that turned out to be a fizzer. Remember all this information was being released publicly anyway. They just spent taxpayers money on trying to get an exclusive.

I wouldn’t think they should hold out hope for more funding the next time they make a budget bid!

Key points of interest are:

  1. The idea to pay Hager seems to have come from Guyon Espiner
  2. Despite all the talk of how restricted their funding is, they had their chequebook ready to go from the beginning
  3. They appear to have both paid the ICIJ to become a “partner” and paid Hager as an “independent investigator”
  4. They appear to have offered setting up Gmail addresses for people
  5. They have with-held some info on the basis of it being a trade secret!

UPDATE: Just had a phone call from Guyon Espiner who has clarified that he did not propose paying Hager. His e-mail references are about Radio NZ joining the ICIJ, not hiring Hager. I accept this entirely. The e-mails I got sent are a partial set, and it was not clear what the references were in relation to.

Update2: A fuller set of e-mails has been released to me and can be viewed here.

Radio Nz OIA by David Farrar on Scribd

The intellectual giants of NZ First

May 26th, 2016 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

NZ First has added a new party policy to its list – voting the opposite to ACT leader David Seymour.

In a weird twist of events on Wednesday night NZ First pulled its initial support for the Official Information Act (Parliamentary Under-Secretaries) Amendment Bill purely because Seymour had decided to vote for it.

It passed its first reading in October after United Future leader Peter Dunne and the Maori Party broke ranks with National and ACT to get the Labour bill over the line.

Seymour, who is under-secretary for education and responsible for charter schools labelled it a “silly bill” but rather than lobby members to oppose it he decided to vote for it as well.

The bill is designed to make under-secretaries subject to the OIA but Seymour claims it’s a “stunt bill” targeting him. 

Speaking in the House on Wednesday night NZ First MP Denis O’Rourke said his party was “comforted” by the fact Seymour initially opposed the bill because he “always gets things wrong”.

“So by supporting it we thought we must be getting it right.”

But Seymour’s voting in favour of the bill at its second reading meant NZ First had to have a “re-think” and now “feel strongly that we must oppose it,” O’Rourke said.

What pathetic puerile politicians. You might expect this from ten year olds, but not MPs.  How can anyone take them seriously when they decide how to vote in Parliament based on this.

The Official Information (Parliamentary Under-Secretaries) Amendment Bill

May 16th, 2016 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

ACT leader David Seymour has done a u-turn and will now support a bill he’s called “silly” and a Labour Party “stunt”.

The Official Information (Parliamentary Under-Secretaries) Amendment Bill – designed to make under-secretaries subject to the OIA – was introduced by Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe last year.

It passed its first reading in October after United Future leader Peter Dunne and the Maori Party broke ranks with National and ACT to get the bill over the line.

Seymour, who is under-secretary for education and responsible for charter schools labelled it a “stunt bill” and questioned why Labour didn’t change the bill back in 2005 when former Labour MP Dover Samuels was an under-secretary.

Labour has long opposed charter schools, an ACT flagship policy, and Seymour claimed the bill was redundant because under-secretaries already answered to their ministers.

“All it does is attempt to attack me and while I’m a little bit flattered, I cannot support the bill,” Seymour said in October.

However the realisation that the Government didn’t have the numbers to block the bill has forced Seymour to change his mind.

He is now going to vote in favour of the bill because he doesn’t see any point “wasting energy” on lobbying MPs to oppose such a “silly bill”.

It’s expected National will throw its support behind the bill as well.

The select committee recommended unanimously that the bill passed, and that is the right thing to do.

Yes the intent behind the bill is petty politics by Labour, but regardless of the intent, the bill is worth supporting as an Under-Secretary is part of the Executive and should have the OIA apply to their official duties.

OIA league tables a good idea

March 21st, 2016 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

TVNZ reports:

New ranking tables to name and shame government departments about noncompliance with Official Information Act requests are likely by the middle of the year, the Ombudsman’s Office says.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has told TV3’s The Nation he plans to shake up enforcement of the act, which allows New Zealanders to request information from most government departments.

He said league tables to rank departments for their OIA responses were on the cards for July 1.

“We pretty much know who are the good compliers and who are not, and probably it would be good for the public to know that as well,” he said.

This is an excellent idea and should have been done years ago. No Right Turn has been compiling his own in the absence of official ones.

The data I suggest they collate and publish for each agency:

  1. Number of OIA requests made
  2. Number granted, partially granted and declines
  3. How many responses were sent before 20 days
  4. Median time for a response
  5. Number of extensions
  6. How many requesters appealed to the Ombudsman?
  7. What proportion of those appealed to Ombudsman were upheld, partially upheld or reversed?
  8. How many requests were made by the five most frequent requesters

OIA charging

January 22nd, 2016 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The former Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverley Wakem, said in a report on the OIA last year that the law does not support “an outright exemption based on the identity of a requester or their role” when considering whether to charge them a fee.

Wakem recommended that agencies review their policies to ensure certain requesters – like media – were not excluded from the rules, so the Reserve Bank could be the first of many to start charging journalists.

Previously it was:

Under the law, government departments and other agencies covered by the OIA are allowed to charge for official information requests.

Most have guidelines which make exceptions for the media, MPs, and the researchers who gather information for political parties – but this may be about to change.

A blanket exemption for certain categories of requesters is not justified. But that doesn’t mean charging should be automatic and the norm. Agencies should charge only where the costs of collation are very significant.

What about wide-ranging requests that could cost agencies thousands of dollars, and take hours to put together?

Ardern says problems with requests like those should be dealt with by speaking to whoever wants the information and asking them to make changes, rather than imposing a hefty sum to access it.

I agree with Ardern. It is far better for an agency to ask if a request can be narrowed down, rather than just charge for a request that will be very time consuming.

Bring charities under the OIA!

December 30th, 2015 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

The Telegraph reports:

Charities that administer millions of pounds of public funds will be subject to Freedom of Information laws in wake of Kids Company collapse, under plans being developed by ministers.

Ministers want to extend FOI powers to the charity sector to allow members of the public to keep track of the way government grants are being spent.

At present charities are exempted from FOI laws despite receiving tens of millions of pounds in grants from the Government.

I’d like to see this in NZ.

If an NGO or charity (or business) is say over 90% funded by the taxpayer, they should be seen as a de facto agent of the state, and the Official Information Act should apply to them.

Matthew Hancock, a Cabinet Office minister who is leading a review of FOI in Whitehall, is driving the changes to bring greater transparency to how public money is spent in the charitable sector.

The changes, which could be in place as early as next year, would shed new light on misuse of public funds and waste.

Mr Hancock told The Daily Telegraph: “I have campaigned for transparency in many different ways and driven the open data agenda, because transparency brings accountability and improves value for money, so we should look a ways that FOI should be extended.”

I think improving value for money is key, and we spend a lot of taxpayer money on charities, without knowing how much value we get.

The plans were welcomed by campaigners for greater transparency in the charity sector.

Gina Miller, founder of the True and Fair Foundation said, ‘There is no denying that the charity sector plays a pivotal role in ensure a true and fair society.

“But it also needs to operate with transparency, accountability and be open to scrutiny.

Charities get both special tax status, and a lot of taxpayer funding, so some transparency is a good thing.

Chief Ombudsman on the OIA

December 11th, 2015 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

The report is here. Nothing too startling in there, but some very useful recommendations which I hope the Government adopts. They include:

  • The Prime Minister and his Ministers should issue clear, visible statements of their commitment to the principle and purposes of the OIA and their expectations of their agencies to comply with its requirements.
  • The Ministry of Justice should develop guidance for agencies (and consider developing a model publication scheme) on what should be included in the Directory of Official Information that will assist requesters to make effective, targeted OIA requests to agencies.
  • All agencies should ensure their websites have a page, no more than one click away from the home page, which provides the public with key information on how to make a request for official information, what the agency’s internal policies and guides on processing OIA requests are, who to contact for assistance, and the information the agency supplies to the Ministry of Justice for inclusion in the Directory of Official Information.
  • Agencies should ensure compliance with the OIA is specifically included in all employees’ job descriptions.
  • Agencies should publicly report on the OIA training their staff have undergone in the last 3 years.
  • Agencies should ensure they have a comprehensive policy concerning the proactive release of information they hold, which includes how to maximise the benefits of proactive release while also managing risks that may arise from the release of certain types of information.

One good example of an agency stepping up is Statistics NZ. Craig Foss announced:

Statistics New Zealand has also begun publishing online, its responses to requests received under the Official Information Act.

“This is similar to the process that Treasury follows, aiming to increase the accessibility and availability of information to help enrich and promote informed debate,” says Mr Foss.

It is incredibly helpful when you can see what information has already been released. I’d love to see the Government set up a central oia.govt.nz site where all responses are made available, say five days after given to the requester.

Labour only believes in the OIA for itself!

November 27th, 2015 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Labour have been asking pretty much every entity in the public sector, including SOEs, the following:

Did xxx receive any Official Information Act Requests during 2014/15 from Cameron Slater/WhaleOil, David Farrar/KiwiBlog, Carrick Graham, or Rachel Glucina? If so, for each please provide the text of the request, the receipt date, the final response date, and whether the request was granted or declined. 

This is not the first time they’ve done this. They did much the same nine months ago. They’re obsessed and have sent this question off to hundreds and hundreds of public agencies.

They seem to think that the OIA is only for people whose politics agree with them. Do they think I shouldn’t be able to use the OIA?

As it happens I use it very infrequently. As Labour will now have discovered after causing hundreds of public servants to check their files, I do maybe two or three OIA requests a year.

I’m going to do another one next week – to OIA the documents around the Government refusing iPredict a waiver from the money laundering regulations. I hope Labour approve of this. Do they think I should seek their approval in advance before I do an OIA request?

 

Under-Secretaries and the OIA

October 15th, 2015 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

A bill that would make ACT leader David Seymour accountable under the Official Information Act has passed its first reading by one vote.

Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe introduced the Official Information (Parliamentary Under-Secretaries) Amendment Bill, which had its first reading in the House on Wednesday night.

It was UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne who broke ranks with National and ACT and got the bill over the line – voting in favour of it along with fellow Government support partner, the Maori Party, as well as Labour, NZ First, and Green Party MPs.

Seymour, who is under-secretary for education and responsible for charter schools, as a result of a supply and confidence agreement with National, said it was a “stunt bill”.

He questioned why Labour didn’t change the bill back in 2005 when former Labour MP Dover Samuels was an under-secretary.

“This is a bill entirely designed to target a particular member: strangely enough, me.”

It is.

But that doesn’t make the bill without merit.

Seymour said the bill was redundant because under-secretaries answered to their Ministers, who were accountable under the OIA.

Under-Secretaries may not have formal decision making power, but they are part of the Executive and hold meetings, write correspondence and the like. I think they should be included, even though I agree the motivation is partisan politics.

As it happens I suspect the bill will be somewhat academic by the time it passes (if it does) as I expect Seymour will be a Minister by then.

A win for the OIA

October 14th, 2015 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

Trade Minister Tim Groser has been ordered to take a fresh look at a request for information on Trans Pacific Partnership (TPPA) negotiations.

Professor Jane Kelsey and others took Groser to the High Court after he refused to release information to her under the Official Information Act. It later emerged that Groser had not reviewed the documents he refused to release, in a blanket refusal for information.

On Tuesday Justice David Collins delivered a judgement in which he said there was was “no lawful basis for the Minister to withhold, in the way he did, some of the information requested by Professor Kelsey”.

Collins added: “It is therefore appropriate for the Minister to ensure officials assess each piece of information requested by Professor Kelsey that is in the possession of the Minister and [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade] MFAT against the criteria in the Act for withholding information”.

The decision fell short of a declaration that Groser or officials at MFAT acted illegally in the refusal.

This is an important court decision as it clarifies how the OIA should operate. Even if you disagree with Jane Kelsey on other issues, you can appreciate her victory in this court case as supporting the public good.

What is interesting is that the Chief Ombudsman had ruled the refusal was legal, so it is a wake up for them also.

The court ruling doesn’t mean that the Government has to release confidential negotiation documents. It means that a blanket refusal was not lawful. Instead officials have to look at each document and come to a view as to whether it can be released. I suspect there would be a very large charge for doing so, but if someone is willing to pay it, then some documents would be released.

However one OIA expert said it may be that Groser’s office and MFAT officials had made a basic error in the way it handled the request. Groser could simply have used section 18A of the act, which covers requests involving a substantial amount of collation and research to request further time and possibly inform Kelsey that she would have to pay for the research to be undertaken.

Charging should only be done rarely but if you want 30,000 documents analysed then it seems reasonable.

Ministerial conflicts of interest

June 9th, 2015 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

An interesting OIA release from the Cabinet Office on conflicts of interests in the last 18 months. The numbers are:

  • Cabinet Office informed of a conflict – 149
  • PM formally advised of a conflict – 140
  • A Minister has declared an interest – 38
  • A Minister has had papers withheld due to conflict of interest – 30
  • A Minister has transferred responsibility – 30

It’s good to see this information coming out, albeit reluctantly. It seems to show that Ministers are regularly working with the Cabinet Office to notify them of potential conflicts, and have them managed.

Hat Tip: No Right Turn

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 www.oia.govt.nz
  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.

 

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.

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.

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!!

 

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.

organs

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Good.

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.