A warning has come from the Chief Ombudsman to government departments over "dragging the chain" when releasing information during the 2020 election year.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said he was putting agencies on notice - through his interview with the Herald - that he would start publicly calling them out if they didn't improve.

"This is an election year and I'm beginning to see ominous signs of agencies slowing down and dragging the chain in answers to me about complaints," he said.

The Office of the Ombudsman is the public's port of recourse when faced with stonewalling by government departments, Ministers and others subject to the Official Information Act.


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The latest figures from the office show a steadily rising number of complaints, which Boshier said could be evidence of greater levels of refusal to requests or the public's improved knowledge of its rights.

In the last half of 2019, the number of OIA complaints increased 11 per cent over the previous six months, while the number of complaints about the equivalent local government freedom of information law went up 20 per cent.

Over five years, the number of OIA complaints had gone from about 3500 to around 4250 over a 12-month period.

Boshier said he took the increased number of complaints as a show of confidence in the office, and again pledged to never allow the office to reach the state of backlog it was suffering when he took over.

In line with that, Boshier said he had met his commitment to Parliament to resolve 70 per cent of complaints in three months, 80 per cent in six months and 95 per cent in 12 months.

The process of handling those complaints had hit bureaucratic quicksand this year with Boshier saying the officials had slowed their responses to his investigations into complaints.

When investigating complaints, the Office of the Ombudsman contacts those who have completely or partially refused access to obtain the unredacted information.


Boshier said there were a number of officials whose response was such he felt compelled to write "tersely that it's not good enough".

"I'm going to act with increasing firmness," he said. "It is especially necessary in an election year that there is no dragging the chain."

Boshier was unable to say whether the slowing down and election year were linked but said public access to information was critical for a functioning democracy.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says those subject to the OIA should respond freely and promptly. Photo / File
State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says those subject to the OIA should respond freely and promptly. Photo / File

Emerging issues went beyond interactions with the Office of the Ombudsman. Boshier said complaints about agencies refusing information had identified a number that had taken "conservative" approaches that did not hold up under scrutiny.

"I'm saying at the moment I won't name and shame. I'm putting agencies on notice we will get close to that. We're on everyone's back now."

There was also the ability for the Chief Ombudsman to launch an "own motion" inquiry, which could be used to investigate specific agencies and their compliance with the law.


Boshier said he would not "shy away" from launching such an inquiry, pointing to his report on Christchurch City Council which found senior managers manipulated the release of information so as to bury bad news.

He also said agencies needed to be properly resourced to meet the demands of freedom of information laws.

Rather than identifying those failing to meet standards, Boshier said those which were standouts include NZ Police, ACC, Treasury and the Ministry of Education.

As context, Boshier said police response to OIAs was good considering the huge volume it handled, and Treasury for its policy of proactively providing information to the public.

The current government came to power with a pledge to be "the most open, most transparent Government that New Zealand has ever had".

Government minister Chris Hipkins - who has responsibility for open government - said the latest statistics from July to December 2019 showed more OIAs responded to on time.


"I have not heard that agencies are slowing down on OIA responses or answers to the Ombudsman about complaints."

Hipkins said the government was constantly seeking ways to improve openness and transparency, including proactive release of Cabinet papers, briefings to Ministers and Ministerial diaries.

"My expectation remains the same. All government departments and agencies should respond to OIAs and complaints freely and in a timely way."