The Official Information Act is an important part of our democracy. It used to drive me insane as a Ministerial office worker, but it is one of the key elements that ensures the accountability and transparency of government. Another key element in this process is Archives New Zealand, and the Public Records Act that oblige the retention and deposit of government records.
Its with a sense of irony then that I am currently appealing to the Ombudsmen the government’s decision to decline my OIA request for documentation around the decision to merge Archives New Zealand and the National Library into the Department of Internal Affairs. The State Services Commission (where requests to the actual agencies involved were referred) has declared that putting together papers on the proposals represents “substantial collation and research”, and has refused the request. Other stakeholders report the same response. Instead they issued a Cabinet paper and minute, and some background material that was already publicly available.
This is just not good enough. The proposal to merge Archives and Library into the DIA has serious potential constitutional consequences which have been discussed here previously. From the Cabinet papers it is clear that both the Library and the Archives had serious misgivings about the proposal, and offered other options. The public deserve to know more about the reasoning for this merger and the possible implications.
As has been reported the Official Information Act requests on Ministerial credit card bills came to some 7,000 pages and cost $50,000 to process. Such is the price of democracy and accountability you might say. But, in that context, surely the release of information about the merger of two small agencies into one large one could be managed?
As part of the OpenLabour process some people have raised with me a process whereby papers relating to a Cabinet decision are automatically released at the time of the announcement of decisions by Government or as soon as possible afterwards. This deserves consideration. Of course there will be matters that from time to time might need to be witheld under the provisions of the OIA, but I think if the default position is that papers will be released it will make for a more transparent and efficient process.