Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier is launching a new investigation after multiple claims that agencies are taking too long to respond to Official Information Act (OIA) requests.
This comes just two months after Boshier found that spin doctors at government departments appear to be flouting the law when failing to answer questions from journalists.
Also in his September report named “Ready or not”, Boshier raised concerns about gaps across 12 government agencies examined for compliance, with the review finding flaws in record-keeping systems and several agencies breaching the Public Records Act.
“Ready or not? gave me a really good indication of what is happening out there. I want to lift the rock to see what is underneath,” Boshier said.
“Since releasing Ready Or not? I have met with a number of groups - including journalists - to discuss my findings.
“They have told me agencies can be frustratingly slow at making decisions.”
Boshier is now worried delays are leading to the perception - especially among journalists - that the OIA is being used as a bureaucratic tool to stifle the flow of information.
“The OIA exists to promote transparency and accountability and to enable the public to participate in Government decision-making. It requires agencies to make decisions on requests for information as soon as reasonably practicable,” Boshier said.
For journalists, delays in replying to requests meant information felt more appropriate for history books rather than the headlines, Boshier claimed.
The public, therefore, has limited opportunity to participate or influence officials and decision-makers.
Boshier’s investigation will determine whether there is substance to the news media’s perceptions and, if so, why these practices and behaviours are occurring.
“I also want to check that any plans for proactive release aren’t being used unreasonably to decline or delay requests,” Boshier said.
“Both journalists and politicians are complaining they are waiting months for the agencies to finally get around to releasing the information and then they’re quietly putting it up on their websites without informing the original requesters.
“Finally, I’ll be looking at how urgent requests are treated, the involvement of agencies’ media teams, and agencies’ leadership and culture, decision-making and record-keeping.”
He hopes his investigation will be completed by the end of 2024.
When questioned by reporters about ministers’ slow response times earlier today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was under the impression they fulfil their “legal obligation” and defended her Government’s record.
Ardern said more than 20,000 requests had been made in six months and some were conspiracy theories, which she noted wasted time.
When Labour came to power in 2017, one of its main campaign points was its promise to be the most honest and transparent Government New Zealand had ever seen.
However, Boshier said his earlier report also revealed some agencies routinely send departmental OIA responses to ministers up to five days before it goes to the requester, even if it is just as a heads-up.
“This not only takes time but can also lead to suspicion of political interference,” Boshier said
“This, in turn, can undermine public trust and confidence in Government.”
Boshier also said adherence to the letter and spirit of the OIA is especially important in an election year to ensure an informed electorate.
“If there is any ministerial interference, gaming or unnecessary consultations or sign-offs taking place, especially for what could be described as high-risk or sensitive requests, this needs to be stopped,” Boshier said
“The public has a right to be informed and not kept in the dark until the last minute, especially in an election year.”
Boshier will be investigating seven agencies that have a mix of functions representing a cross-section of the public sector.
- Te Whatu Ora | Health New Zealand
- Pharmaceutical Management Agency | Te Pātaka Whaioranga (Pharmac)
- Kainga Ora | Homes and Communities
- Department of Internal Affairs | Te Tari Taiwhenua (DIA)
- The Treasury | Te Tai Ōhanga
- Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet | Te Tari O Te Pirimia Me Te Komiti Matua
Boshier also said he wants to hear from former and current public servants as well as from requesters if they have information that may help his investigation.