Late in 2021 the Government proactively released damning Covid data into public domain allowing public scrutiny and comment.
Proactive releases are a good feature of a healthy and transparent democratic society.
Going back a few years, a similar proactive release around the Tuia 250 programme avoided Parliamentary scrutiny with its release 24 hours after Parliament had risen for the year and described a sordid tale of conflict of interest in what is still one of the biggest breaches of young people's data ever.
Clearly then this activity can be improved, and the recent proactive release of Covid data is a timely segue for reflecting on how proactive releases can better fulfil their valiant promise.
In 2020 I was still bothered by the Tuia 250 proactive release so I started collaborating with the Ombudsman around Official Information Act requests that are responded to as "wait for the proactive release". Here are the concerns I raised:
1. There is no date or time for when a proactive release will occur.
2. There is no notification to the requester that an Official Information Act question has been answered in a proactive release.
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3. There is no detailing in 100s of pages of material where exactly the answer to a requester's specific question can be found.
The Ombudsman agreed with me and developed a code of conduct around good practice for proactive releases. Here is what the Ombudsman wrote:
30 June 2020 Dear Dr Reti Regarding proactive disclosure Thank you for meeting with me via Zoom on 28 May 2020. As you know, we discussed a number of issues relating to the use of the Official Information Act 1982, and my expectations around proactive disclosure. I am pleased to inform you that I have published a guide, entitled Proactive release: Good practices for proactive release of official information. I trust that you will find this guide useful. It confirms, among other things, the view of successive Ombudsmen that it is: …good practice to tell the requester when the information is expected to be made available, and to let them know once it's available, including where they can find it. It is also intended to prompt agencies to turn their mind to other relevant issues, including the public's need for information to be accessible and usable, issues relating to the timing of release, and the need to periodically review information published proactively to assess whether it remains accurate and relevant.
This is a good step but more needs to be done. First, it is not clear to me there is any compliance with the code whatsoever, and this need to be monitored, with consequences.
Second, the code of conduct for proactive release needs to be extended beyond the Ombudsman's Official Information Act purview to other forms of inquiry that legitimately holds the Government to account including media questions, oral questions and written Parliamentary questions that are passed off to proactive release.
Taking this next step is the next body of work with collaborative like-minded holders of public office who want to improve accountability.