A rotten OIA story


When I left the Ministry of Transport in July, I asked the two managers I reported to for a bunch of spreadsheets and background documents in areas I expected to continue working on at The New Zealand Initiative.

Most of these were documents I had authored. Some included analysis of the rising road toll back in 2016 which failed to find much interest at the ministry, but more with the public in the past few weeks. Others included technical models I said I’d be developing further and would be happy to share back with the ministry.

I specifically excluded anything that was advice to the minister

Sounds reasonable. But what was the response:

In short, the ministry’s response to my request was late and full of potentially – ombudsman ruling pending – unlawful redactions including of material that was previously publicly available.

The Ministry even password protected the spreadsheets, thus preventing copying, pasting and editing.

So they deliberately made the data hard to use. But this is not the crux of the story. He then did an request on his OIA request – to see who was involved in deciding to redact so much stuff etc.

The 2nd OIA was 240 pages long. So the Ministry of Transport had 249 pages of e-mails discussing his first OIA request.

Things start off promisingly before the 20-day maximum clock even starts with Carr telling policy adviser Andrew de Montalk: “I expect we can release it all in full, but do test that assumption if you feel it is wrong in any particular regard.”

By day 7, De Montalk had tested his views with at least one other policy advisor and a legal advisor and prepared a draft memo recommending full release of every requested document. While the legal advice has been withheld as privileged, it’s highly likely to have supported release, otherwise De Montalk would presumably have noted this.

So the managers involved at the start were basically saying looks fine to release everything. But then as time goes on:

Another email noting that Ministry lawyers have agreed to provide “a list of robust legal options”. These options and the discussion around them have been withheld.

Another still, from van der Lem, observes: “Lots of drama on this OIA”.

De Montalk, the adviser who recommended full release and, for his sins, is tasked with administering the increasing farce: “This is the largest meeting room available at this time.”

So a large meeting room is needed just to discuss releasing documents they are obliged under law to release.

Ten public officials are invited to discuss what should be a straightforward information request. The room’s capacity is six.

Data is withheld on the grounds that it was provided to the Ministry by the NZ Transport Agency, and to the NZ Transport Agency by councils, under an obligation of confidence.

Most of the data is public or has been in the past. The rest of it would be subject to request from NZ Transport Agency or councils individually.

There can be no obligation of confidence here, and suggesting that agencies can share non-personal information with each other and label it “confidential” to hide it from the public is somewhat sinister.

So if one public body shares info with another public body, then they think that allows them to label it confidential and hide it.

At no point in all of this did any staff member refer to the Ombudsman’s guidelines, or even the Ministry’s own internal guidelines. (De Montalk can be perhaps excused because of how obvious it was that all the information should have been released.)

Similarly, there’s zero discussion of the public interest in releasing the information. If not for the release of the information, the ministry might still be saying the road toll’s trending down.

At least 50 people were involved in this request, 42 of those ministry staff.

Outrageous and such a waste of taxpayer money. They obviously have too many staff if they can afford to have 42 staff involved in one single OIA request.



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