For the past year, the Office of the Ombudsman has been reviewing the Official Information Act. The review published this week outlines steps to improve the function of the OIA. There is, however, no such review system for the office itself. Three recent events suggest an external health check - perhaps by a royal commission - is needed.
For 53 years, the Ombudsman's office has been the place to which citizens can take grievances of all kinds involving their interaction with the state. Since 1983, this has included reviewing OIA requests. In all its roles as an independent arbiter between the citizen and the state, it needs to have a healthy regard for the imbalance of power. There is no room for the sorry lack of self-awareness displayed this year.
When the High Court found Trade Minister Tim Groser had not properly applied the OIA to a request from Professor Jane Kelsey, it corrected the Chief Ombudsman's endorsement of the minister's decision to refuse the information. Yet in the wake of the judgment, Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem declared: "Any suggestion that the court passed judgement on the merits of the Chief Ombudsman's decision is incorrect." If the minister was wrong, the Chief Ombudsman was surely also wrong.
Around that same time, her office's annual report to Parliament stated that for the first time it had run a "formal quality assurance process" over its investigations into OIA complaints by staff who had completed its in-house training programme. Just 71 per cent of complaints reviewed met quality standards, with timeliness the major failing. There were no details or statistics to explain the 71 per cent.
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What the annual report did not say - as explained in the office's statement of intent - was the quality assurance process was meant to start the year before, but was put off because of workload pressures. It was too busy to check if it was doing a good job, and when it did check, it was not.
Then came the Chief Ombudsman's review this week, in which Dame Beverley reported that perceptions of lengthy delays in ombudsmen's OIA investigations were seen by some as a tactic to bury bad news. In short, deny, delay and let the administrative lag kill the likely interest in timely information. Dame Beverley says she found no evidence of deliberate denials of information requests, but says those concerns, along with her own over delays, "cause me to review my own office's practices". She found her office had no plan to manage the loss of experienced staff, training of new staff or handle increased complaints. It had not "been flexible enough to cope with the volume and complexity of complaints it was receiving".
The inability of the office to recognise its own shortcomings is a poor return on the public faith invested in its operations. Given the importance of the office, problems should be telegraphed and met before they arrive. It should not be a case of slowly dawning realisation - it is time this once energetic public watchdog received a thorough check-up on its own health.