Improving transparency

In Opposition, political parties have a habit of thundering about the lack of government transparency and talk big about changing it once they come to power.

But the reality is likely to be less dramatic.

We are still waiting for a long overdue review of the 1982 Official Information Act, recommended by Ministry of Justice officials in 2019.

Despite then justice minister Andrew Little promising a re-write in 2020, it never happened.

Labour also went silent on the proposal it had in Opposition in 2012 and 2017 for a law change which would allow the ombudsman to charge government departments for OIA delays and breaches.

In the lead-up to the recent election, National said it was committed to reviewing the OIA and has suggested the Office of the Ombudsman needs more enforcement powers.

Whether that enthusiasm translates to action once National eventually gathers the reins of office remains to be seen.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. PHOTO: NZ HERALD
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. PHOTO: NZ HERALD

At local government level, councils are still digesting the advice in chief ombudsman Peter Boshier’s investigation into practices around workshops and informal meetings and compliance with the law when excluding the public from meetings.

The Otago Regional Council may have some work to do on the latter issue.

Last week its public and active transport committee had been planning to consider an item about security arrangements for Dunedin buses and the bus hub in secret, until Cr Michael Laws questioned that, and it was shifted into the public section.

In his investigation report, Judge Boshier reminded councils the decision to exclude the public ultimately rests with the elected members and not council staff. It was the role of the chief executive to provide advice to councillors on whether there are any grounds to close the meeting to the public, as well as any countervailing reasons in the public interest to hear the item in the open.

The Gore District Council, which has been in the limelight more often than it might have appreciated this year, has decided to hold a workshop in the new year to discuss the ombudsman’s report and how it could develop a policy on its practices around the issues raised.

Its decision to hold this workshop in public, in line with Judge Boshier’s recommendations for such gatherings, is a step in the right direction.

And another thing

We feel uneasy about the health and disability commissioner’s decision last week to release a summary of an investigation of a southern complaint rather than the full reports we are used to.

The case involved a melanoma patient who was referred for an urgent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Instead of being seen within 31 days, he waited for 20 weeks, missing the opportunity for earlier diagnosis and treatment of the cancer.

When the decision summary was released, the HDC said there was no additional information attached because Te Whatu Ora Southern agreed with the HDC it had breached the man’s right to services of an appropriate standard.

Questioned about this, the HDC said although a full investigation was carried out and all relevant information from the involved parties was gathered and assessed in accordance with the office’s usual processes, the decision document was truncated due to facts being agreed. The decision was conveyed to the consumer in the form of a letter, outlining key facts and the reasons for the decision about the breach of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights.

The HDC says all key acts/omissions of the provider were outlined in the one-page published document.

We are not convinced of that. Te Whatu Ora Southern accepted the delayed scan indicated a systemic failure in its process, but nowhere does the summary spell out what that failure was. Where did that urgent referral end up? Did anyone follow it up to see what had happened to it?

By reporting to the public this way, we worry the HDC risks creating a public perception health providers can escape detailed public scrutiny by agreeing they have transgressed.