Red Alert

“Substantial Collation and Research”

Posted by on June 17th, 2010

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.


20 Responses to ““Substantial Collation and Research””

  1. Hilary says:

    This is a really important issue. The Archives/National Library merger into the Department of Internal Affairs makes no sense, has no support in the sector, threatens our democracy, history and culture, and will have to be undone further down the track. It is as ill-considered as selling off the National Library bookstock under the last National Government. Thanks for persisting on this issue.

    (And by the way great editorial in the latest Wellingtonian.)

  2. Spud says:

    :evil: Our heritage! :evil:

  3. Ianmac says:

    Grant: Who actually makes the decision on whether or not to comply with the OIA?

  4. “The Official Information Act is an important part of our democracy.”
    I couldn’t agree more. In fact it is so important that I think it should be extended to cover parliamentary services and the respective leaders budgets. What say you Mr Robertson?

  5. Harpoon says:

    No wonder government bodies do stuff less efficiently than the private sector if they’ve got this sort of thing to think about and deal with all the time.

    I think DIA should have responded to the credit card requests with “Sure, no worries; we’ll happily give you the info, but it’ll cost us fifty grand to do it, so pay up and we’ll have to you quick as a flash”. They should do the same thing for you, Grant, and all other requests that will take more than a couple of hours work to answer.

    If they do otherwise, the OIA could just become a massive fiscal and human resource drain on the nation’s coffers.And if that happened, ministers might well have a justification for amending the act and putting restrictions on access to official information.

  6. Phil Lyth says:

    Harpoon, I suggest you think again. The whole point is that this is information held by the state using the authority granted by a Parliament elected by the people. (Lordy, that sounds pompous) But it is very different to the private sector. People don’t have to deal with a particular private sector operator, they can choose another. Not so with the publi sector.

    I’ll spend 10 minutes now crafting a response to lanmac’s query.

  7. Loota says:

    Is this more right wing spin?

    See where BP’s ‘efficient private sector methods’ have got them

    See where Lehman Brother’s ‘efficient private sector methods’ have got them

    See where Google’s ‘efficient private sector methods’ of collecting personal data have got them

    Yet another person who doesn’t understand how a system of checks and balances is crucial in a democracy if Government is to be a boon and not a tyranny to the people.

  8. Phil Lyth says:

    Lanmac, it is not so much a decision as to ‘whether to comply’ with the OIA as how to respond.

    The Act makes it clear that information must be released unless there is good reason to withhold it. The Act sets out various reasons, eg ‘trade secrets’. But (and this point is lost on many) it requires that consideration be given to whether the wider public interest outweighs any reason to withhold.

    So the agency holding the information makes the decision whether to release it or withhold it.

    BUT, the requester – Grant in this case – has an effective right of appeal to the Ombudsmen. A former Ombudsman draws the distinction between that office and a judge: “a judge has limited jurisdiction but virtually total authority; an Ombudsman has unlimited jurisdiction but no power to make enforceable orders”

    What the Ombudsmen do have is the power to make recommendations to agencies re OIA requests and other matters. It is so rare for an agency to ignore a recommendation that a Parliamentary debate can follow: see http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/Debates/Debates/e/8/9/47HansD_20040825_00001327-Motions-Southern-Institute-of-Technology.htm

    I also recommend the website of the Ombudsmen: http://www.ombudsmen.parliament.nz

  9. Phil Lyth says:

    Lanmac, my response to you is in moderation: I suspect because I put two links in, not just one.

  10. cat says:

    They’re in the process of implementing Freedom of Information Acts in Australia, at both federal and State levels.

    The problem that could occur is not so much about the will to release the documents as and when they are published, but the inevitable checks and balances that are required, and how these will be managed.

    The logistics of somehow being sure that all documents that are released *ought* to be released, and that they don’t (for example) contravene the Privacy Act means that inevitably there’d need to be a system of approving release and cross-checking.

    Would this be more labour-intensive than the current process of responding to OIA requests? Not sure. And would it in fact fully replace the OIA? Seems unlikely.

    In response to an earlier comment, it is my understanding that govt departments can in fact charge for the release of information if the request represents a large amount of work. In the case of the Credit card receipts maybe a decision was taken not to do so..

  11. Charles says:

    The OIA is a fascinating in operation – I really wish more people would take government refusals on, take them to the ombudsman. Refusals are often made by a low level official who has received next to no OIA training. If a department can find a section 9 ground they will decline the request – typically without considering whether the public interest outweighs section 9. This is chronic throughout government.

    “Substantial collation and research” is just another generic ground they try when they can’t find a section 9, and it often works, makes people go away – people just give up easily. If you take it to the ombudsman, this ground usually very falls away quickly. The only problem is that ombudsman takes so long! By the time the Ombudsman has decided the use or importance of the information is no longer.

    In my experience these bodies are CHRONIC for refusing requests and deploying flaky reasons:
    1. The Police, almost impossible to get a refuse granted.
    2. Victoria University of Wellington.
    3. Corrections, they like to give requesters the run around.

    Bodies in my experience that are excellent at granting requests – or providing proper reasons for refusing information:
    1. Ministry of Health, especially exellent
    2. Wellington City Council
    3. Education Review Office
    4. Ministry of Education
    5. Some of the smaller district health boards are excellent – very helpful.

  12. Charles says:

    Grant,

    Make a follow up OIA request seeking all information relating to the decision to refuse your OIA request – in particular information regarding what would be involved in granting the initial request.

  13. Andrew says:

    Harpoon, if a private sector company is questioned on its spending by the shareholders then they will definetly respond and will have to dig up and present the information. Its called accountability and sensible business practice.

  14. Loota says:

    Quite right.

    Unfortunately shareholders do not often question the deep details of how an end of year result was obtained as long as the EPS and dividend is good enough.

    With regards to Government we are citizens, not shareholders, and our interests don’t lie just in an end of year result but also in how appropriately Government conducts itself day to day.

    A corporate board of directors would likely just say “let us get on with the job and don’t disturb us”. Of course, that is not an acceptable response in democratic government.

  15. Harpoon says:

    @Loota — you’re wrong if you think I’m a rightwing spinner.

    @Phil L — do you think the Act should be changed to forbid charging for provision of information? If so, why?

    @Grant, how about calling for the $13,000 per annum MP allowance to be (a) included in the ‘actual and reasonable’ rules, and (b) open tot he OIA? I reckon I know what the answer might be from all parties in Parliament.

    but why would they say ‘no’? After all, the OIA has been mostly good for democracy, used fairly and in moderation. The trouble is, it can clearly be abused. Public servants could come to see it as a great big stick to beat them with — collateral damage just for the sake of putting some heat on a minister. Who here would argue that it’s a good thing for the entire public service to be always worrying about the OIA-ability of this or that communication? Performing interminable processes and form-filling etc just to ensure immunity from attack by some snake-eyed OIA interrogator?

    This, surely, is why MPs have kept the Parliamentary Service out of OIA reach.

  16. Loota says:

    Harpoon – $13000 allowance is incorporated as part of each MPs salary. Since when do you get to track how an individual spends their employment salary? What is the justification?

    Back to the subject. ‘Private sector efficiency’ – that is the ideological right wing dream I was putting a hole in.

    The private sector is no more efficient or bullet proof than the public sector, and in some cases, catastrophically less so.

  17. Harpoon says:

    @Loota — IIRC, you’re wrong. Sorry. The $13k is not part of salary; it is an expenses allowance that is paid straight into an MP’s bank account. No receipts, no reimbursement paperwork, no reporting is required; they just get the dosh and it is assumed they’ll use it for a parliamentary purpose … they are all ‘honourable members’, after all!

    More info here.

  18. Loota says:

    Maybe you’re wrong and it is part of the salary…

    @Loota — IIRC, you’re wrong. Sorry. The $13k is not part of salary; it is an expenses allowance that is paid straight into an MP’s bank account.

    “Journalists today asked Dr Smith how the wine purchase could be considered a legitimate expense.

    Dr Smith said as it was for a political party event it could be: “Whether we like it or not political parties are part of this Parliament.”

    He said the $14,800 was built into salaries and no receipts or claims needed to be processed.”

    So its pretty straight forward then, Harpoon…its built into each MP’s salary

  19. Loota says:

    Oh yeah the NBR link, for your benefit Harpoon

    http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/speaker-defends-mps-allowance-120887

  20. Idiot/Savant says:

    do you think the Act should be changed to forbid charging for provision of information? If so, why?

    It doesn’t really need to be – hardly anyone in central government charges, except for really enormous things (and even then, as we’ve seen with expenses, it can be waived in the public interest). That said, I’d be happy to raise the charge threshold from 1 to 10 hours, just to make it clear that answering OIAs is something every department, Minister and agency has to do, and to stop them from trying to use charges to discourage requests.

    (Local Government OTOH charges as a matter of course. They have really bad attitudes over there)