Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Media Take: The creeping politicisation of the OIA

78 Responses

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  • Greville Whittle,

    To all those getting caught up in the "But your guys did it first" arguments:

    Most people here agree it's a big problem, and I think we see it as a problem no matter who is doing it.

    I think we should take the line "This problem is happening, we all agree it's bad. Let's do something about it." Let's agree on what standards we expect and make sure that we attempt to fix the problem.

    That being said I'm pretty tired of "labour did it too" as a rallying cry as the problem has definitely gotten a lot worse under National, and in the last 2-3 years particularly.

    Hamiltron • Since Oct 2008 • 50 posts Report Reply

  • Andrew E,

    re: proactive publication, readers might be interested in this report on how the Norwegian Freedom of Information Act (PDF in English) works.

    From that article:

    Norway’s Freedom of Information Act cuts across state, county and municipal governments. It interfaces with the Archives Act and Noark by requiring administrative agencies to keep and publish a register of metadata daily to an online access portal, the Offentlig Elektronisk Postjournal (OEP). The OEP, a central access point for government information, enables users to search all records across government for a given issue and make requests easily and rapidly. Anyone, anywhere in the world can request access to records through the OEP. See http://www.oep.no/.

    Under the Act, government documents, including email, are available for access as soon as they are produced, received or transmitted by a central government agency unless there is a legal restriction. About one fifth of the records, classified for security reasons, are not listed in the register. Agencies have five days in which to respond to information requests, via the OEP or direct to the agency. They provide the documents by email, fax or regular mail, normally within two to three days. By the end of 2012, the OEP contained over five million registry entries published by 105 government agencies. It processed about 20,000 information requests a month: 50% from journalists (50%), 28% from citizens and businesses, 21% from public employees and 3% from researchers. The Government is considering the possibility of providing direct access to full text documents through the OEP to make administration more open and transparent and enable government agencies to work more efficiently. There is significant potential for linking records to data to support data traceability and enable reliable Open Data.

    I spoke to a Norwegian journalist a few years ago about how well this system works in practice. He said so many documents are published that he had to unsubscribe from the RSS feed, but the search tools were pretty good. Some gaming occurred, with agencies sometimes deliberately applying obscure titles to documents so they didn't sound too interesting.

    174.77 x 41.28 • Since Sep 2008 • 200 posts Report Reply

  • NBH, in reply to Tinakori,

    I suspect that the identification of ministerial advisors as political advisors in that study was made to give the impression the introduction of the political advisors in bulk under Labour was a simple and not very significant progression from the existing setup.

    It's a bit rough to accuse the only people in NZ who have actually studied this of falsifying their data. I think the Marsden Fund would be very interested in any evidence you have of that.

    Wellington • Since Oct 2008 • 97 posts Report Reply

  • Marc C,

    Counter arguments, no matter what, OIA, dishonest revelations and so forth, perhaps re consider:

    Abit "heavy", but I stand by it!!!

    Akl • Since Oct 2012 • 437 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Andrew E,

    Agencies have five days in which to respond to information requests, via the OEP or direct to the agency. They provide the documents by email, fax or regular mail, normally within two to three days.

    Now there's a benchmark.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19686 posts Report Reply

  • Andrew E, in reply to Sacha,

    I understand the Swedish norm for responding to an access to documents request is 24 hours. But it is an access to documents law, not an access to information law; there are important differences.

    174.77 x 41.28 • Since Sep 2008 • 200 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Greville Whittle,

    the problem has definitely gotten a lot worse under National, and in the last 2-3 years particularly

    I have no reason to doubt David Fisher when he says it is the worst he has seen in 25 years. That's shameful.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19686 posts Report Reply

  • David Hood,

    Attachment

    1st graph the long term trend is for about half of OIA requests to be resolved in twenty days or less. This hasn't changed much in two years in the FYI data. This says nothing about how long the post-20 day ones have been taking

    Dunedin • Since May 2007 • 1443 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to nzlemming,

    A lot of this would go away if agencies published everything unless there was a good reason not to.

    Isolating the Ombudsman so that its line of funding can't be directly influenced by Parliament also wouldn't go astray, and neither would financially cutting into agencies' budgets when their actions result in Ombudsmans' involvement.

    Giving the Ombudsman a base amount of funding for overheads, then letting it invoice agencies for its investigations of them, would accomplish both of these. The Ombudsman gets the cash it actually needs to properly investigate the complaints it receives, and agencies have an incentive to avoid encouraging complaints.

    Some agencies would obviously need to budget for expected Ombudsmans' complaints as part of whichever controversial projects they're working on, but one way or another the CEO will need to be accountable to their Minister and to Treasury (and the public once the budget comes out) as to why they need that money. The alternative is to simply adhere to the OIA properly in the first place.

    Parliament had a chance to debate and tinker with this concept in 2012, but National laughed Shane Jones' Bill out of the house at its first reading, then proceeded to dismally underfund the Ombudsman for its actual workload.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1139 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Tinakori,

    There most definitely were not in the Bolger governments.

    Not correct. I worked in 2 different agencies under National in the 90s - IRD and MoRST. Both ministers had advisors in their office who were not sourced from the agencies in their portfolios. I am aware of many others.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2930 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to B Jones,

    Have you used a government document management system?

    I did say "wit" as well as "will"...

    I'll allow that most agencies can't even use document styles properly, but that doesn't mean you don't try. The problem is they won't consider trying.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2930 posts Report Reply

  • Trevor Nicholls,

    The problem is blindingly simple: the OIA system is badly broken from the POV of the public, but it functions really well from the POV of the Government of the day. Somehow the incentives have to shift - because controlling and distorting the flow of information is a very effective way to subvert the workings of a democracy.

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 310 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Hooton, in reply to Marc C,

    It was more than that. In the "old days" there was one sometimes two press secretaries in each office who had reasonably amounts of actual work to do who also gave their ministers political advice when required (in most cases, from their perspective as former journalists). Then each office got an additional person who had nothing to do other than be political - and these people were usually party activists. This dramatically increased the politicalisation in each office. and across the Beehive as a whole. As someone above said, it doesn't matter who started this - it is a reality now. But it explains why ministerial offices have the time to vet every OIA or media request that goes into any part of the bureaucracy. In the "old days" - before the "no surprises" rule got out of control - there wasn't the resources and institutional processes for minister's offices to involve themselves in so much of their department's BAU activity.

    Auckland • Since Aug 2007 • 194 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Hooton, in reply to David Hood,

    There is a very big difference between 30 days and two years.

    Auckland • Since Aug 2007 • 194 posts Report Reply

  • Tinakori, in reply to nzlemming,

    I don't know about MORST but the non departmental staffer in the Minister of Revenue's office was a secondee from an accounting firm brought in for his expertise in tax. There was a comparable one in the Minister of Finance's office who provided a private sector perspective to the MOF. What they knew about politics prior to their appointments could be written on the back of a postage stamp with a carpenter's pencil. Non departmental appointments as Ministerial advisors do not = political advisors who, as Matthew Hooton said earlier, are mostly people who, whatever their other attributes, are party activists or loyalists. That's probably why the paper on political advisors vastly overestimated the number prior to Labour becoming government.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2013 • 118 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    I’ve just posted a tidied-up version of Fish’s speech notes. go read it here.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22754 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso, in reply to Greville Whittle,

    To all those getting caught up in the "But your guys did it first" arguments...

    ...remember "your guys" is a meaningless phrase. On questions of economics and governance New Zealand has had an interrupted series of right wing governments by most international standards. It's not a case of "but it also happened under Labour" so much as "and it also happened [or started] under Labour". There is no contradiction, and it's pointless to wait for a cavalry that is simply never going to come.

    The challenge of campaigning about these issues is that it pits you against the vast majority of the political class. Nicky Hager has spoken about this at length.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7473 posts Report Reply

  • David Hood,

    Attachment

    Here are percentages of OIAs resolved in 20, 30, 60 and 90 days.

    I would interpret (you might want to open this graph in a new window) that as the government has gotten fast at releasing information it is happy to have released (the 20 days level), but that hasn't affected the 30 days threshold so it is not all things getting faster within the 30 area (indeed I assume some of the ones above 20 got slower, since the results in the 20 threshold are not reflected at the 30 level). From the the 60 and 90 day levels we can see that the government has gotten slower at releasing things it does not want to release. Caveats about the samples and the number per month apply.

    Dunedin • Since May 2007 • 1443 posts Report Reply

  • Idiot Savant,

    There's been a definite tactic pre-election of delaying even inconsequential requests until after the election, which will have affected the 60- and 90-day trends.

    Palmerston North • Since Nov 2006 • 1711 posts Report Reply

  • Jarno van der Linden, in reply to Andrew E,

    But it is an access to documents law, not an access to information law

    In the age of data journalism, would that be the more desirable approach?

    Instead of having someone at a ministry spending time and resources trying to answer how many tire punctures ministerial limousines have had over the last ten years, you are given access to the maintenance records with the understanding that you can figure it out yourself from there.

    Nelson • Since Oct 2007 • 81 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes, in reply to Marc C,

    So it is neither here nor there, just a kind of interpretation of title and role, but we are non the wiser re what happens, and what happened.

    I have a broom like that, two new handles and three new heads but its still my broom.

    Peria • Since Dec 2006 • 5521 posts Report Reply

  • Idiot Savant, in reply to Jarno van der Linden,

    Instead of having someone at a ministry spending time and resources trying to answer how many tire punctures ministerial limousines have had over the last ten years, you are given access to the maintenance records with the understanding that you can figure it out yourself from there.

    You can already file such requests. Why cripple the law to force journalists into a particular path of journalism?

    Palmerston North • Since Nov 2006 • 1711 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Jarno van der Linden,

    Instead of having someone at a ministry spending time and resources trying to answer how many tire punctures ministerial limousines have had over the last ten years, you are given access to the maintenance records with the understanding that you can figure it out yourself from there.

    Sometimes, documents without context can be quite misleading. When I was a public servant, I used to get phone calls from journalists who trusted me to give them the straight information. If I said, "I can't talk about that" they respected it, but I always preferred to have correct information in the media than to have "the ministry was evasive and wouldn't answer our questions so here's what we think happened".

    My immediate boss was of a similar mind and trusted me not to over-step the bounds, and I always kept him informed and diary-noted the conversations. When he left, his replacement heard me talking on the phone one day and just about had kittens! I could point to all the diary notes as an example of established practice, which saved me from a disciplinary hearing, but I had to officially dry up as a source (most of them had my home number, anyway). I left the public service soon after.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2930 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming,

    I'm also reminded of a manager I had earlier who constantly said "perception is reality". Her problem was that she regarded it as a prescription for success ("manage the perception and keep the reality hidden") rather than a warning ("as people perceive you, so will they treat you"), which is what has come back to bite the public service in a big way. People perceive them as evasive and secretive, and so don't trust their public words. That means more OIA requests to try to find out "what's really going on".

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2930 posts Report Reply

  • David Hood,

    Attachment

    I recalculated on the basis of IS's comments, pulling the 60 and 90 day back earlier into time (by an amount depending on the period being checked) it does really change anything about the fast OIAs getting faster and the slow OIAs getting slower. I should also note there was a lot of stuff getting out the door fast in July/ August/ September.

    Dunedin • Since May 2007 • 1443 posts Report Reply

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