No room for complacency

Beverley Wakem
Beverley Wakem
The conclusions of Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem's review of the Official Information Act are something of a mixed bag.

The 1982 Act established that - in the interests of effective participation, accountability, respect for the law and good governance - official information held by government agencies should be made available to the public unless there was good reason to withhold it.

The Office of the Ombudsman is a state sector watchdog.

Dame Beverley's year-long investigation was undertaken after she says she became aware of growing public concern and criticism about perceived practices within government agencies in relation to the Act.

Her report (released this week) concluded most agencies are compliant most of the time, and there was no direct evidence of political interference in the release of information.

That is certainly pleasing. It adheres to our democratic principles, reflects international findings such as the Corruption Perceptions Index (which rates New Zealand the second-least corrupt country), and reinforces the goals to which we aspire as part of the international Open Government Partnership and our recent ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.

However, Dame Beverley's report raised several red flags.

The report found greater leadership was required.

While chief executives and senior managers understood their obligations, there was little OIA training for staff, and policies for proactively releasing information were lacking.

Ministers gave ‘‘mixed messages'' to departments about compliance and some Government ministers' offices had attempted to interfere in their departments' responses to information requests.

All of the above created a

‘‘cycle of distrust and suspicion'' between the public and agencies.

The training and policy lack is concerning given the Act has been in effect for more than 30 years.

While the report found departments put ministerial officials right about their obligations and released the information, the fact influence is being exerted is worrying.

Worrying too is the possible extent of this.

Dame Beverley acknowledges she is hamstrung by the Ombudsmen Act of 1975. Police do not come under her jurisdiction, and she cannot investigate the actions of ministers and their officials, only the ‘‘decisions of the police, ministers under the OIA in relation to individual requests for information''.

Is she - and are we - getting the full picture then?

That seems debatable given the limitations and the increasing number of complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman (a near record of more than 12,000 in the year to June).

The public (and media) ‘‘distrust and suspicion'' around transparency is certainly real, and was discussed in an editorial in this newspaper only last week.

The situation has not been helped by Prime Minister John Key's admission the Government sometimes delays releasing information right up to the 20-day OIA deadline if it is in its interests to do so. (It is a legal requirement to release the information as soon as practicable within that time frame.)

It must be acknowledged privacy provisions and security considerations come into play when releasing some information.

Most will understand that conflict and the difficulties in obtaining the right balance.

Unacceptable, though, is the withholding of information, or delaying tactics, for political purposes.

The report makes it clear there is work to do.

The Ombudsman's office plans to start compiling annual report cards on departments' compliance with the Act and will give agencies guidance and resources to respond to requests.

But all those involved in central, as well as local, government must get on board with both their requirements and public expectations.

For a gap between the ideals and the realities of transparent government clearly exists, when there should be no room at all for complacency.

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