Just before Christmas, the Chief Ombudsman announced she had begun a review of all aspects of Official Information Act practice. It will be wide-ranging, encompassing a formal review of 12 government agencies and a survey of all 27 ministers' offices and a further 63 agencies. Dame Beverley Wakem says the inquiry is needed to assure the public that both the letter and spirit of the law are being observed by the custodians of public information.
Several recent episodes suggest that providing such assurance will be a tall order. And that the time has come for a beefing up of the power of the office of the Ombudsman.
As much is underlined by the increasing politicisation of the release of information. This is a consequence of the "no surprises" policy introduced by the previous Government. The possibilities afforded by a requirement to tell ministers when information on which they might be questioned was to be released have been grasped eagerly by its successor. Just before the general election, Curtis Gregorash, a former high-ranking Customs lawyer, revealed that he had been told by senior department officials to refuse OIA requests. He believed this was at the direction of former Customs Minister Maurice Williamson.
Equally damning were revelations in Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics and a subsequent inquiry finding that the Prime Minister's office passed on information provided by the SIS to Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater for political purposes.
The Prime Minister himself added fuel to the fire when he observed that ministers sometimes waited the full 20 days allowed to respond to questions because it might be in the Government's "best interest to do that".
None of this would have come as a great surprise to Dame Beverley. Stories similar to that of Mr Gregorash told to her by a number of people helped spark her review. Her office has also been swamped with complaints, and she has voiced concern about the increasing number of officials who failed to understand the importance of the OIA.
In particular, she appears irked by an "excessive reference upwards for approval" when there was no reason to do this. That, and other ploys, cause unnecessary delays.
Dame Beverley believes there is fundamentally nothing wrong with the act, only the execution. But a Law Commission report three years ago said more than bureaucratic mindset had to change.
Among other things, it recommended the creation of a new standalone office to oversee compliance with the act. In fact, a much better resourced office of the Ombudsman could extend its current role to also champion open government and serve as a watchdog for the underlying principles. Either way, former Justice Minister Judith Collins chose to ignore the commission's most telling recommendations.
Dame Beverley's health check will surely confirm that much more needs to be done. One should be changing the legislation's name to the Freedom of Information Act. The information belongs, after all, to us, not to officials.