Reform of the OIA

writes:

Calling all journalists, academics, public servants, political activists, and members of the public who believe in the need for government to be more open with its information. We need to form a coalition to fix the Official Information Act ().

It’s time for everyone who believes in reforming the OIA processes to join together and campaign to make that actually happen. Such a coalition could guide the new government in making the necessary changes so that New Zealand is once again a world leader in open government, the way we were in 1982 when the extraordinary act was introduced.

The OIA itself may still be fit for purpose, but the wider official information system desperately needs review, especially in the way that the act is adhered to by government. At the moment, it often functions more as the Closed Government Act.

Now is the perfect time to act. Whenever a new government is formed, it’s normally enthusiastic and idealistic about fixing problems in the system. And when it comes to problems with the OIA, the parties coming in from opposition are highly sensitive to its faults because they’ve been on the receiving end of governments keeping an overly-tight grip on information.

The parties making up the new coalition government have protested strongly against abuses of the OIA that occurred under National. So, hopefully they’ll want to prioritise some sort of review aimed at fixing the problems.

Clare Curran is the minister with responsibility for “Open Government”, as part of her role as Associate Minister for State Services. She has already committed her government to doing much better than the last government in terms of releasing information. But in a recent interview with the Otago Daily Times’ Eileen Goodwin, Curran wasn’t very clear about whether any reform of the OIA would be forthcoming.

I’ve volunteered to join and help this group, and hope others will also. I’ve been supporting OIA reform for most of the last decade and even attended a Labour Party forum on open government and shared ideas on policies they could adopt. I hope Curran and Labour can walk the walk, bot just talk the talk.

The ideas I have promoted for open government are:

  1. Have all OIA releases made publicly available on a central website (oia.govt.nz) seven days after the information has been sent to the submitter. This will allow others with interest to see the information
  2. Change the law so some material is released pro-actively, not reactively. I’d mandate that all agendas and papers for Cabinet Committees (and Cabinets) be automatically released no later than six months after they are considered. The normal exceptions for redactions would apply.
  3. Make financial information held by The Parliamentary Service covered by the OIA. I think having e-mails between MPs and staff covered would be stifling on political activity, but if taxpayer money is being spent, we should be able to find out on what.
  4. Introduce what they call in the US Armchair Auditors Acts, that require all central and local government payments over a de minimis level to be published online in a searchable database. This would have prevented the outrageous level of expenses claimed by the Waikato DHB CEO. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
  5. Require government agencies to publish datasets they have in machine readable formats on an opt out, not opt in, basis. At present each agency decides what datasets they will publish and the amount made accessible varies greatly. I’d require every government agency to make their data openly available within five years unless they get an exemption (an opt out) from Cabinet for legitimate reasons such as privacy or security.

As I said I’m keen to join this group and work with everyone from Nicky Hagar to the CTU to push for change.

If you’re interested, please get in touch. Contact me: bryce.edwards@vuw.ac.nz

I’d encourage others with a genuine interest in this area to contact Bryce also.

 

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