Even if we don’t know it, Government is a significant influence in our day to day lives.
People rightly expect that it should behave in a predictable, open and transparent way wherever it can. In a democracy, public confidence relies on citizens knowing what government is doing and why, and being able to take part in debates knowing that the government is listening (not snooping).
Greater public confidence in government through more open government is an important Labour goal.
Achieving this requires continuous vigilance and improvement in the transparency and openness of government. It also requires public pressure to demand it: if that tension did not exist then the institutions of government and politics have no checks and are left open to corruption and exploitation. The media is a critical part of this.
Increasingly, citizens are also taking to the internet and using their own investigative skills and innovations to discover and aggregate information.
But New Zealanders need to have confidence that there is sound democratic process in law-making and the parliamentary process.
They need to have confidence in the public sector being open and transparent; and that political parties are committed to engaging with the public in a more open and transparent way.
Governments have to be able to understand the issues and debates and acknowledge that old ways are being replaced by new ones.
Last election, Labour had a comprehensive “Open Government” policy which set out the need for transparency and access to information (while balancing with the need for “free and frank advice” and protection of “security and commercially sensitive information). Work is well underway for the release of Labour’s updated Open Government policy.
But while digging deeper into this issue, I’ve become increasingly concerned at what I can only conclude is either deliberate or astonishingly reckless non-compliance by this government with the requirements of the Official Information Act (OIA).
Far too often, information requests my Parliamentary colleagues and I ask of ministers or departments are responded to late or inadequately. On a disturbingly large number of occasions, requests are simply not responded to at all. Is this new? No I’m sure it isn’t. Is it getting worse? I think it is.
This concerns me. I’ve been collating examples where ministers and departments have been flouting the requirements of the Act. This list is growing nearly every day.
And as I’m reviewing these examples, what concerns me most is that while my Parliamentary colleagues and I are familiar with the process, the legislation, the game. But many ordinary New Zealanders aren’t.
MPs are aware of how to word questions to get the information sought and escalate any complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman. But if this obfuscation is happening to us, what is the Government doing to average New Zealanders?
Speaking to those who I come across in my work as an MP, I’ve become concerned that so few people know the avenues for access to information. (Although more people are turning to FYI.org.nz - a fantastic initiative that allows anyone with an internet connection to submit an OIA request of Government agencies.)
As I’ve been looking into this, I’ve become determined to find out how badly ministers and departments are failing to meet their obligations.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging on this and the broader issue – providing stats and examples of obfuscation tactics employed by the departments and ministers, how government watchdog resources are stretched, the Government’s inadequate response to the Law Commission’s review of the OIA and what you, and the next Labour-led government, can do to combat the disrespect being shown for our right to know.
Watch this space.