Culture of secrecy blasted

Pete Hodgson. Photo: ODT files
Pete Hodgson. Photo: ODT files
Pete Hodgson has attacked the national health authority for a culture of secrecy "bordering on arrogance".

The former health minister, who headed the new Dunedin hospital project, said he had to break the rules of Health New Zealand Te Whatu Ora (HNZ) to get information out to the public.

This follows recent HNZ Southern data showing multi-day lags in responding to media, and an ombudsman ruling calling the organisation’s six-month delay in releasing requested information "unacceptable".

"The inability of Te Whatu Ora to sort out a communication strategy or or even a series of tactics on any issue is astonishing," Mr Hodgson said.

"I had to break their rules in order to be able to speak to the public. I’ve found myself ignoring all of their ways of trying to control the message, so it’s uncommonly bad."

Mr Hodgson was Labour’s health minister between 2005 and 2007, and helped to oversee construction of the new hospital before stepping down from the role last December to focus on volunteer work.

In earlier days the Ministry of Health and district health boards — replaced in 2022 by HNZ — were much more forthcoming, he said.

"I have no doubt that it will improve just because it has to, but it is one of the most disturbing features of the new health system.

"There’s many good things about the new health system — this is not one of them."

The system was taxpayer funded, and therefore owed the public information about how money was spent.

However, as a new organisation with a glut of middle management, there was "a culture of reluctance ... almost bordering on arrogance" that needed to change.

Employees could not speak to media without permission, and even basic questions were referred upwards, he said.

HNZ needed to delegate to local spokespeople and trust their judgement.

"We’ve had local spokespeople in health for a very long time and having them silenced, if you will, by a more centralised process, is simply unacceptable."

HNZ head of communications and engagement Catherine Delore yesterday said HNZ media processes were not unusual and helped ensure the right information was provided.

"We aim to respond as quickly as we can, but there may be times when we can’t always meet deadlines if a query is complex or requires information from multiple sources."

Some clinical staff could comment to the media under their collective employment agreements.

Regional queries were handled by local staff but some were also shared with the national media team if additional information or advice was needed, she said.

HNZ chief executive Margie Apa last month said regional responses were approved locally, then shared with the national media team for review.

Data provided by HNZ last month under the Official Information Act showed Southern received 70 regional-exclusive media queries throughout October and November last year.

Of these, it responded to 36 queries in less than a day, but other responses took up to six working days.

Otago Daily Times records show its queries were answered on the third day on average during the same time span.

An ombudsman decision last week found HNZ failed to meet the requirements imposed on it under the Official Information Act in responding to a request by the ODT last year.

Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier said he had written to HNZ following the "unacceptable" delay, indicating he would be monitoring and drawing attention to cases of demonstrable non-compliance.

The Act required a decision on requests to be communicated no later than four weeks after they were received, he said.

A request regarding aged care was sent last July, but the information was not responded to until last month — an overshoot of half a year.

HNZ head of government services Sasha Wood said timeliness was a fundamental obligation under the OIA.

"We recognise in this instance that we did not meet our own expectations or that of the ombudsmen in regard to timeliness and for that we apologise."