By Samantha Olley
Police are struggling to cope with the overwhelming number of Official Information Act (OIA) requests which flood their offices every day, and some of their time-saving measures are now prompting concern from the Chief Ombudsman.
Figures released last month show police received 10,582 OIA requests between May 2014 and April 2015, around 28 a day, more than one every hour. A fifth of those aren't being processed on time.
The document, released to a member of the public, reveals police aren't recording how many requests are partially or totally refused. A total of 1,942 were processed out of the 20-day time limit and a further 406 were outstanding as of a month ago.
Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem is confident the police are responding as quickly as they can in the face of a huge number of submissions, but says it's important to record how many requests they turn down.
"Under the Public Records Act you should be keeping information from which you could derive those statistics, and I would have thought that should be the final part of their complaints process," she says.
"Each agency should know as part of management oversight not only that they got a complaint or request for information, but what happened to it, if it was timely and what ensued. It is another indicator of how efficient and effective your department is."
But police spokesperson Grant Ogilvie claims police have no "business need" to track how many responses are partially or totally refused.
"Many of these requests are not straightforward. They frequently relate to complex and sensitive issues involving private information, or issues which are under active police investigation or before the courts," he says.
"We must always balance the need to meet the requirements of the Act whilst ensuring we don't disclose private information, compromise investigations or court processes. This means that responses can often take time to prepare."
Dame Beverley is currently overseeing a review of how Government agencies use the OIA, and says the police are "probably doing as well as anyone could do" with the workload. Complaint numbers have been low, with only 30 people coming to the Ombudsman in that time with complaints over delays, and only six of those being upheld.
"There's a whole range of things that can conspire against a prompt and tidy response, but deliberate delays by agencies are not something that has emerged from our review. I'd be very surprised if I found evidence of malicious practice."
Dame Beverley also highlighted the influence of the 33-year-old law, saying the OIA has the "importance of a piece of constitutional legislation" and plays a key part in reducing corruption and safeguarding democracy.
"We should do everything we can to make sure we don't water it down in any way, by inattention or administration."
Police have previously tried to improve how they handle OIA requests and in 2011 overhauled the entire system with new training, new clarification of roles and responsibilities and a new single electronic system to log and track requests.
Kilian O'Gorman, who received the data under the OIA, argues there is still room for improvement, particularly around the way police treat and think about their information.
He believes police should start preemptively releasing information to reduce the number of requests they receive and cut down their workload, publishing to the internet and in the public record whenever they can.
"The numbers alone are enough to generate some sympathy to the police command's position," he says.
"If we generously, and naïvely, suggest that each one can be completely processed within 120 minutes, it still equates to over 10 full-time equivalent police staff… There's $650,000 of police time spent answering OIA."
Mr O'Gorman suggests police could also outsource their OIA functions to an independent entity to manage the process or create a page on FYI, a website which encourages the public to collaborate on OIA requests.
Police admit there may be discrepancies in the data they provided around OIA requests, saying their staff probably failed to record completion on some requests and others cases may have recorded incorrect times.
Samantha Olley is a student at the New Zealand Broadcasting School.