The Dim-Post

September 25, 2014

Oh yeah. My other post-Dirty Politics, clean-up democracy idea

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 2:50 pm

Is that the government fund an independent audit process for the oversight of OIA requests, and that this (department? office? I dunno) undertakes regular inspections of the OIA process in different government departments and Ministerial Offices, with anomalies (like instant turnaround for party apparatchiks, years of Ombudsmen requests for everyone else) made public, and repeated failure to meet benchmarks – as set out by the legislation – be made grounds for dismissal of the public servants responsible.

45 Comments »

  1. Whistle Dixie comes to mind.

    Comment by John Williams — September 25, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

  2. A Tui Billboard comes to mind.

    Comment by Michael — September 25, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

  3. In my experience the public servants processing ministerial requests are hard working and dedicated, with a deep belief in the transparency of government. That’s why they’re there doing what is frankly a really shit job. I’m also unsure why you think bullying public servants will lead to process improvement. What would have an effect is to praise good performance. CE/DGs don’t like to be shown behind their counter-parts and would make an effort to improve their organisations.

    Comment by Robert Singers — September 25, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

  4. @Robert

    Because clearly the current system isn’t working and there are no consequences for those who try and prevent people from getting information they’re legally entitled to. “Most” isn’t good enough, and frankly, the ones who are good don’t need to worry. It’s the ones who prevent access to information, get rid of it, force unnecessary investigations by the Ombudsmen – they’re the ones it would be targeted at.

    You’re all carrot, and that’s not working. Because right now, it’s all carrot.

    Me, I’d get rid of the Ombudsman and Privacy Commissioner and replace them with something like the ICO, with the power to fine and/or bring prosecutions for abuse of the OIA or failing to look after people’s personal data. I think a $500,000 fine would make departments think twice before they mess around. Or how about bringing in a Special Counsel, like they have in the US for interfering with FOI requests? As for the other functions of the Ombudsman, there’s probably very little that couldn’t be dealt with by an independent tribunal. It’d certainly do a lot for transparency and judicial independence.

    Comment by Chris (@slackjawdtownie) — September 25, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

  5. be made grounds for dismissal of the public servants responsible

    Surely its the Chief Executive’s responsibility?

    Comment by idiotsavant23 — September 25, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

  6. I’m also unsure why you think bullying public servants will lead to process improvement.

    How is it “bullying” public servants to monitor whether they’re complying with the law — and that’s what the Official Information and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Acts are. (And yes, I’d like to see OIA audits across the board not only in ministerial offices.) And to get all Chris Rock for a moment, I’m not going to give a civil servant a fraking medal and oven-fresh cookies for complying with the law because they should be doing that shit anyway. Isn’t it also a Chief Executive and Minister’s fundamental duty to ensure their departments are properly resourced to perform their statutory duties? If they’re not doing that, then a little public naming and shaming should be the least they expect and that’s not “bullying” but accountability.

    Comment by cranapia — September 25, 2014 @ 3:42 pm

  7. @Chris it’s not clear it isn’t working. Nicky Hager bitching doesn’t make a global problem.

    Comment by Robert Singers — September 25, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

  8. “repeated failure to meet benchmarks – as set out by the legislation – be made grounds for dismissal of the public servants responsible.”

    I think this ignores that many public servants don’t necessarily have responding to OIA requests as a clear part of their job description. They have a regular job for which they were hired and are well qualified, more than a few are overworked by a large margin with existing priorities and ongoing deadlines, and then suddenly an OIA’s dropped on their desk and they’re told to figure out where to find several more hours of their time, or worse, to respond to it. It’s no wonder that so many OIAs probably get pushed aside until they finally have to be dealt with, because there will always be more immediate priorities.

    The Act says that OIAs should be responded to as soon as reasonably practicable. 20-working-days is meant to be a worst case minimum, but it’s ended up being the ad-hoc default. I’ve seen plenty of enthusiasm within the department where I worked about responding to OIAs efficiently, but it was mostly amongst the Ministerial staff, without much clear encouragement from the top.

    I think the problem is more likely to be in the failure of Chief Executives and Ministers to take their responsibilities under the OIA seriously when they set the tone of their organisation, and the priorities of their employees. If people are hired with clear expectations re the OIA, and then properly resourced to handle those expectations, it might be worth considering disciplinary action when they’re not met.

    Comment by izogi — September 25, 2014 @ 3:53 pm

  9. @Robert

    Alright, how about this:

    “The Office of the Ombudsman is in “crisis”, with a bulging backlog of cases due to lack of investigators and existing staff underpaid and in some cases being worked to death, Ombudsman Beverley Wakem says.

    Appearing before Parliament’s Government Administration committee today, Ms Wakem said the office was under “considerable pressure” in terms of staffing and funding and had been for the last three years.”

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10785726

    I got an 18 month wait time from them at one point. I’ve actually heard, from great sources, of civil servants actively attempting to withhold information, to reject and put things through to the Ombudsman without real grounds for doing so, and deriding the people who make requests under the OIA as a waste of time.

    It’s clear it is a huge problem, and you’re either willfully ignorant or you’re genuinely ignorant. Neither is good.

    Comment by Chris (@slackjawdtownie) — September 25, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

  10. be made grounds for dismissal of the public servants responsible.

    Which would be the ministers.

    Comment by Draco T Bastard — September 25, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

  11. A cynic might suggest that much of the time, the reason OIA requests are delayed is because the answer might reflect badly on the civil servants involved in the ministry, rather than the minister. In other words, the people who have to process the OIA’s, have a vested interest in OIA requests not being processed in a timely manner…

    Comment by J Bloggs — September 25, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

  12. YMMV but when I worked in the Public Service in 04-08 OIAs and Ministerials were taken very seriously and when one arrived, everything else was put on hold until they were answered and the whole process was treated very seriously. It didnt matter if it wasnt in your job description. They came through to us via the regional manager’s executive assistant and she would be on your back on a daily basis, if not hourly when deadlines were tight until you provided what was needed. Granted the Dept I worked for was, at that time, rated one of the most well-regarded of the core public service by members of the public.

    Comment by jonocarpenter — September 25, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

  13. Hey, Robert, Izogi and Jono – people who make blog posts who know what they are talking about. Not fair!

    Comment by Tinakori — September 25, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

  14. I think punishing public servants isn’t the answer. You’ll just put them in an impossible position – comply and be punished by their political bosses, or don’t comply and be punished by the independent auditor. The problem doesn’t originate in the bureaucracy.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 25, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

  15. @izogi: When I worked for the public service, which admittedly was a long time ago, our Department had somebody whose job it was to respond to OIA requests, and my understanding was that this was general practice.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 25, 2014 @ 6:37 pm

  16. Why sack civil servants when a regularly published league table is more effective? Tony Ryall showed that worked. In health.

    Like the Ombudsman idea. Better still: any publication based on emails, or memos, has to establish the provenance of them and place them on a public register (this is what is happening with research data for clinical trials). And this is audited as well — by the Ombudsman or Privacy Commissioner.

    Comment by pukeko60 — September 25, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

  17. Chris at 4,

    I may be misunderstanding where you are coming from, but how does fining a government dept $500,000 help? Aren’t you just fining the taxpayer?

    be made grounds for dismissal of the public servants responsible

    Surely its the Chief Executive’s responsibility?

    Except if the reason for not complying is ultimately lack of sufficient resources, then surely it would be the Minister and Government of the day?

    Comment by steve — September 25, 2014 @ 8:42 pm

  18. @kalvarnsen, yes it might be to a point. My own experience was that OIA’s basically got fired off to a Manager in the most relevant section, who’d then assign it within their team, and a Ministerial Coordinator would monitor them and chase them up if nothing had happened within the workflow system in due course, but it’d still be common for responses to take a while and I think this was simply because many teams needed time to reprioritise the work they were already focused on in order to make time for something else. Some teams which received lots of OIAs were well prepared because they just expected it, but other teams with sporadic OIAs often weren’t. Then there are complications like ongoing turnover, domain knowledge within the organisation, and so on. Later on we got a team specifically dedicated to handling OIAs, but I think many of the more specialist ones would sometimes still result in needing the time of specific employees.

    Anyway, my own experience is very introspective and might not even be completely accurate for where I was. It’s just the impression I had.

    Where the Ombudsman’s concerned, I’d like to see legislation to let the Ombudsman invoice a reasonable cost of processing complaints back to the Department or Ministry or Whatever being investigated. This would create a financial incentive for CE’s to ensure that responses go out properly the first time, lest they have to pay for the handling of a complaint. The nature of some projects would naturally create large numbers of complaints even if they weren’t justified, but it would at least be in the power of the department to budget for that cost directly when budgeting for the project, instead of springing it all on the Ombudsman at some random time who otherwise has to somehow pay for it anyway.

    Shane Jones actually had a Bill before parliament which would have done this in 2012, but National nuked it at the first reading, basically claiming it’d simply become a tool for people who wanted to sabotage a department’s funding, plus they were already allocating a token yet still insufficient amount of direct extra funding for the Ombudsman at that time, and used that as an excuse. I doubt the Bill was perfect as he submitted it, but IMHO it was a great concept that would have done well to go to a Select Committee and more readings.

    Comment by izogi — September 25, 2014 @ 8:44 pm

  19. Oh, and I forgot to add that letting the Ombudsman invoice Departments for investigations would also provide it with a line of funding that’s isolated from Ministers and Parliament, making it harder for them to directly influence how crippled they want it to be when investigating complaints.

    Comment by izogi — September 25, 2014 @ 8:49 pm

  20. Kalvarnsen at 15,

    I think that’s generally the case, however depending on the nature of the request the dedicated OIA person/people might mostly co-ordinate the gathering of the information. So at least in some cases I think the ‘grunt work’ so to speak, has to be done by someone else – and as izogi suggests, that person may have a bunch of other things that are also “the most important, highest priority thing to be done”.

    Comment by steve — September 25, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

  21. Snap

    Comment by steve — September 25, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

  22. Again, I can only speak from my own experience, but failing to handle an OIA was basically the highest level of performance failure short of actual criminality. The concept seemed to be that the OIA team were responsible not just for answering but for ensuring that the process of providing OIAs was as seamless as could be done. It wasn’t perfect but a lot of the problems experienced – conflicting “highest priority” projects, conflict between specialised teams and general managers – are not really specific to OIAs but more generic managerial problems related to large organisations with diverse outputs, and should be surmountable. Which just reinforces that the real problem is political, not managerial.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 25, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

  23. God, kalvarnsen, another reality based commenter. I think this a record for a Dim Post thread!

    Comment by Tinakori — September 25, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

  24. @Steve

    You’re fining the department and the funds go back to the Crown and get redistributed again. Fines come out of the department’s budget, and if departments are racking up significant fines because some staff don’t have the right attitude, then the CE can’t operate the department properly. If the CE blows their budget on fines, someone’s getting fired.

    The consequences of fining Crown entities goes beyond who pays the money.

    If the OIA is working so well as it is, and if departments are doing so well, then why did Curtis Gregorash have to quit his job because of the way OIAs were handled in customs? And why, on hearing what he had to say, did Beverly Wakem say she was hearing similar stories from other departments? Why did, between 2012 and 2013, the number of complaints to the Ombudsman about ‘delays deemed refusals’ increase nearly 300%? Those figures are atrocious. Response times are atrocious. Excuses for not handing over information are at best poor. But with 25% of complaints taking more than a year to resolve, and no punishment for anyone concerned for dicking around with OIAs, what else do you expect?

    Comment by Chris (@slackjawdtownie) — September 25, 2014 @ 11:10 pm

  25. Time to privatise government functions. No public sector workers, no problems.

    Comment by OECD rank 22 kiwi — September 26, 2014 @ 3:05 am

  26. Time to privatise government functions. No public sector workers, no problems.

    Dumb.

    Comment by Gregor W — September 26, 2014 @ 9:25 am

  27. As a frequent requester of OIAs, it is obvious different agencies have different approaches and levels of professionalism. Treasury and SSC are the most prompt; they get a lot of requests and have worked out how to deal with them. Other agencies, not so much. In one case they stalled me for over a year. When I turned up in their office in Wellington the man responsible expressed surprise; he admitted that they just hoped I would give up and go away. This was the mid-2000s, under a different government. I did complain in that instance to the PMs office and like magic the government agency concerned couldn’t do enough to help me.

    I think government agencies need to be funded properly for good records management systems; part of the problem is knowing whether information exists and where it might be. But importantly, the culture around OIAs comes from the top and leadership needs to be shown here. Allegations that agencies are frustrating requests that might be politically embarrassing – the DPMC and SSC need to take a hard line on this. it would be reassuring if they could make a public statement about how they are responding to such allegations.

    Comment by MeToo — September 26, 2014 @ 10:41 am

  28. I’m thinking a bad person might game your system, Daniel, by setting out to overwhelm the OIA providers with randomised requests in bulk when their review period is due. A government who supported such an idea could be sure to squeeze funding at the same time.

    Not too hard to use any OIA reviews with teeth to turf everyone who follows the OIA, and shield everyone who doesn’t, but just tweaking their funding and having some pet troll moderate the request rate. All while having the extra cover of a set of rules they can show how closely they’re sticking to.

    The ombudsman works well, it just needs funded in proportion to complaints, so the government can only cut it’s funding by having all departments comply in a timely fashion with the OIA. Adding a numbered FIFO queue system to releases for information (other than your own, people asking about themselves should always be ASAP) would fix the pet blogger issue.

    Stalling everyone’s requests to stall one would make things a little more obvious all ’round. If it’s about transparency.

    Comment by tussock — September 26, 2014 @ 10:55 am

  29. Danyl. Soz.

    Comment by tussock — September 26, 2014 @ 10:56 am

  30. “As a frequent requester of OIAs” Someone else who knows what they are talking about. This is a record for sure.

    Comment by Tinakori — September 26, 2014 @ 11:11 am

  31. @Chris my _personal_ opinion is the backlog to the Ombudsman is because the OIA does not include sufficient protection against fishing expeditions, or vexatious or commercially exploitative requests. I think if you could see the breadth of requests that each agency gets you either be surprised or outraged.

    I also have to agree with izogi, there is not the training or funding for civil servants about the OIA, or attention paid to function itself.

    Comment by Robert Singers — September 26, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

  32. “the OIA does not include sufficient protection against fishing expeditions, or vexatious or commercially exploitative requests.”

    I haven’t seen the Ombudsman’s backlog and it’s been a few years since I worked there, but I think it’d be great if there were some standard for departments to publish info about who’s requesting lots, probably with some provisions for privacy where it’s appropriate. Seeing just how much government resource is used up by commercially-oriented media organisations simply fishing randomly for a scoop over their competition, without producing actual stories from it, could be enlightning.

    Simply in the IT section, when you get recurring requests from a juniour journalist asking stuff out of the blue like “tell me how much time all employees have spent looking at the following [list of about 40 rugby-related websites”, it really just makes you wonder. A request like that probably gets repeated to 50 government departments, so multiply the resources diverted from other work by 50.

    Fishing expiditions make a reasonable case for the provisions of the OIA to charge requestors for time incurred, but I’d hate it if the NZ government resorted to doing that. In Australia I found it was often standard to have to pay a base fee plus a possible variable fee for any request. (eg. Parks Victoria’s policy.) That’s the type of framework, however, which risks putting “freedom of information” out of reach of ordinary people, and restricts it to the very people (the lazier part of the media) who are perfectly well resourced to continue funding their fishing expeditions on the off-chance they’ll strike some gold on occasion.

    Comment by MikeM — September 26, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

  33. Watch out MikeM, you’ll give Tinakori kittens.

    Comment by MeToo — September 26, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

  34. I am overwhelmed!

    An additional consideration is the need to ensure any changes do not discourage agencies from providing free and frank advice. Under certain circumstances Ministers will be reluctant to seek advice and agencies reluctant to provide it. A number of agencies are very professional about this but some – and this partly depends on the Minister – will pull their punches. For the public service to work effectively they need to be able to be as free and frank as possible and not to suffer sanctions for being so.Go too hard on the requirements and the incentives for agencies to provide bland advice increase dramatically.

    Comment by Tinakori — September 26, 2014 @ 10:35 pm

  35. @Tinakori: There’s a provision in the OIA that rules out requests that would compromise “the effective conduct of the decision making and policy advice processes of government”. In practice this means that departments are not required to provide information that comes from policy brainstorming sessions.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 27, 2014 @ 5:34 am

  36. Danyl, I am inviting you to the 2014 Holloway Rd progressive cocktail party. Get in touch🙂

    Comment by Richard McIntosh — September 27, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

  37. I’d love to see ongoing analysis of OIA requests and reponses.
    Isn’t that somebody’s job?

    Comment by Sacha — September 27, 2014 @ 9:33 pm

  38. I think this ignores that many public servants don’t necessarily have responding to OIA requests as a clear part of their job description.

    And that itself is a failure of their Chief Executive. Responding to OIAs is core government business. Its the law, and they have to obey it. And if we had proper performance stats, so that Chief Executives and Ministers could be held accountable for their performance, then I think it would improve.

    Comment by idiotsavant23 — September 27, 2014 @ 10:32 pm

  39. I think it’d be great if there were some standard for departments to publish info about who’s requesting lots, probably with some provisions for privacy where it’s appropriate. Seeing just how much government resource is used up by commercially-oriented media organisations simply fishing randomly for a scoop over their competition, without producing actual stories from it, could be enlightning.

    Or not.

    I’m a frequent requester. But not every request uncovers something worth blogging about. Sometimes it just confirms that there’s nothing to see here and everything is fine, or that that rumour you heard was wrong. Which is usually reassuring to know, but not especially newsworthy.

    That said: disclosure logs (proactively publishing all OIA responses) are great, because they inform people and save future requests. Its a shame our government departments aren’t doing them.

    Comment by idiotsavant23 — September 27, 2014 @ 10:48 pm

  40. Having worked in govt agencies and handled OIA requests, the people I’ve worked with take the process seriously and do their best. There can be a large number of time-consuming ‘fishing expedition’ OIAs. Instead of penalising the public servants, find a way to penalise the politicians that influence the process.

    Comment by Miranda — September 28, 2014 @ 9:58 am

  41. Until recently, the Ombudsmans Office have been pretty good at forcing racalcitrant government departments and unersity vivisectionists to release their data on animal abuse, which they keep trying to hide, using every excuse they can think of. But my last request to the Ombudsman took over a year for a reply, by which time of course the information was uselessly out of date.

    Comment by Environmental Education — September 28, 2014 @ 11:20 am

  42. Hi Danyl. I am inviting you to the 2014 Holloway Rd progressive cocktail party and after function. Join us and bring some good friends. Get in touch.

    Comment by Richard McIntosh — September 28, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

  43. Chris at 24,

    I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, or some problems, with the OIA system. The trouble with your approach is it seems completely focused on dealing with the problems as if they’re purely administrative, or managerial as kalvarnsen put it. But they’re not; they’re political, or at least mostly political. You linked to the Wakem comments about how the Ombudsman’s office is struggling because it’s under resourced. Now think about that: a state agency is struggling to do its job effectively because it is under resourced. And think again about what the problem is that you’re concerned with wrt other state agencies.

    But with 25% of complaints taking more than a year to resolve…

    If the Ombudsman’s office isn’t doing its job right, should it be fined $500,000? Will that help?

    Comment by steve — September 29, 2014 @ 12:21 am

  44. Fired off an OMAIG to local council back in May. Line item of hundreds of thousands on annual plan for our area – what is it – information denied due to commercially sensitive negotiations. Then line item (cost) removed from next set of accounts. Final accounts for end of year show – the line item was always there plus 500k more in the budget – never declared to the public – no idea what was delivered – no scoping of project shown to the public. The problem with denying and delaying OMAIG’s is all it does is alert the managers to tpublic knowledge of the fraud and allow them to cover it and fudge the books. I note that in the US the fraud investigators get a percentage of any successful cases successfully prosecuted. People like the Mangawhai Ratepayers need to be compensated and supported. Our councils are out of control; and the OMAIG process is part of the problem.

    Comment by Anon — September 29, 2014 @ 10:36 am

  45. Someone was telling me about an OIA they got back from Te Papa a while ago, part of which dealt with formal visits to the institution and read something like: August 1st. Received visit from [Redacted], head of state of [Redacted] who toured the [Redacted], [Redacted] and [Redacted] exhibits’ – all of which was posted in unredacted versions on Te Papa’s website.

    Comment by danylmc — September 29, 2014 @ 12:37 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: