Tear down this wall

It could read like a joke.

Question. What do journalists, opposition MPs, government backbenchers, lobbyists, advocates and engaged citizens have in common?

Answer. Major problems with the Official Information Act.

This is no joke, however.

The Act, which is designed to show New Zealanders what their officials are doing behind-the-scenes and ensure government transparency, is being frequently and cynically abused by some to bolster their own standing as the keepers of information and keep the public in the dark.

Concerns about the application of the OIA, and the stretching of its timing provisions to near-breaking point, may seem awfully wearisome to many. But the disparate groups mentioned above bang on about it for good reason — if we can’t scrutinise the inner workings of government, then how can we be sure the "system" is working as robustly and appropriately as it should in a democracy?

And without such examination, how can any government claim it and its inner workings are truly transparent?

The current Labour Government has promoted itself as being on the side of transparency. In fact, it proclaimed it wanted to be the most open and transparent New Zealand government ever .

While there are some indications it believes in that virtue, regrettably that pledge is often at odds with reality and comes across as richly ironic.

There are hundreds of examples of poor OIA behaviour from government departments, including lengthy delays, asking for clarifications and using that as an excuse to reset the clock, general obfuscation, and releasing material which is so riddled with redactions as to be useless.

Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier
Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier. Photo: ODT Files
The irritation is not all one-sided though. There are plenty of serial OIA applicants who go on fishing expeditions for vast troves of information which is requested vaguely and requires a great deal of time for officials to search out, if it exists. There may be an element of retribution in lodging such vexatious requests, after being mucked around in the past, but it rarely gets anyone anywhere.

It's possible to imagine a Wellington in which ministries and departments, and perhaps politicians too, have some kind of master list of "difficult customers" and that they are treated with greater disdain, and subject to longer and more frustrating delays, than the occasional requester.

Perhaps somebody should put in an OIA request asking if there is such a list and for a copy of it? Hmmm, good luck with that.

Great news this week that Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier is preparing to launch into an 18-month investigation of OIA delays, just two months after releasing his Ready or Not report. In this he focused on compliance with the Act of 12 government agencies, finding flaws in record-keeping from several which breached the Public Records Act.

Now, after consulting with OIA users, Mr Boshier says he will "lift the rock to see what is underneath". He is worried the Act is being used by the bureaucracy as a way to strangle the information flow and that those delays reduce the public’s opportunities to participate or influence officials.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded to the announcement of the investigation by telling The New Zealand Herald she was "under the impression" ministers met their legal obligations.

The Taxpayers’ Union, which says it is the country’s "largest user" of the Act, wants the Ombudsman’s Office to support an "applicant blind" addition, which would mean government officials would not know who is requesting the information.

The group’s proposal is a very good one. They are absolutely right in their view that the decision to release official information should have nothing to do with the identity of the requester.

New Zealand’s Official Information Act was probably far from the mind of former United States president Ronald Reagan in West Berlin in June 1987, when he implored then Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall".

We do not have physical walls in New Zealand keeping officials safe on one side and the public excluded on the other.

But the virtual walls that have been built must come down.