An investigation into Official Information Act (OIA) practices has found "significant gaps" in the way government agencies respond to journalists, train staff and keep records, the Chief Ombudsman says.
A report titled Ready or Not? was tabled in Parliament on Wednesday by Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier, which looks at how well a dozen core Government agencies are complying with the OIA. The investigation is a follow-up report to Not a Game of Hide and Seek published in 2015 by his predecessor, Dame Beverley Wakem.
Boshier undertook the investigation to get a sense check of how the law is being put into practice and was keen to see how well agencies performed under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Overall, Boshier said his research found the core public service is increasingly transparent and agencies are taking the initiative to proactively release information to the public as part of their normal business practice.
However, he said chief executives and other senior leaders still need to make sure their agencies have the resources and systems in place to handle their OIA workloads.
He said most agencies have set up media teams to respond to queries from journalists but these teams do not seem to apply the law.
"There appears to be a widespread misapprehension that many media information requests don't fall under the OIA and that applying the law is difficult and complicated. These perceptions are false," Boshier said.
He discovered multiple examples of media teams within agencies breaching section 19 of the OIA, which covers the reason for refusal of giving official information.
"Media teams are failing to give journalists a reason when they refuse to provide information or inform them of their right to complain to me," Boshier said.
"This misconception about journalists' queries is fuelling the growing mistrust within news organisations about the way agencies are managing requests for information. It is also leading to the view that agencies are using the OIA to undermine transparency."
Boshier said he's growing increasingly concerned about the experiences journalists are reporting and the apparent dismissal by some agency media teams of the OIA legislation which underpins their work.
"In fact, the processes adopted by the agencies have little or nothing to do with the law itself and I intend to consider this matter further."
Boshier also found training was another vulnerable area for many agencies. He said he gave nine out of the 12 agencies action points suggesting improvements in this area.
"For example, many agencies did not give targeted training to their decision makers, their media teams, nor to staff seconded to Ministers’ offices as private secretaries."
Boshier said he was also concerned about the blanket approach some agencies took when it came to informing ministers about OIA responses to fulfil their "no surprises" obligations.
"I found a number of agencies were routinely giving their minister's offices a heads up three to five days before the date they were due to respond to a requester. In cases where this is necessary, it should happen either just before or at the same time to avoid any delay."
Boshier said he found gaps in all 12 agencies in terms of their record keeping and information management systems, with several agencies breaching the Public Records Act.
"I am concerned at the impact this must be having on their ability to retrieve requested information. Agencies must promote a strong record-keeping culture and introduce robust training."
Boshier said the investigation into the OIA started before the pandemic but it ended up being shaped by it.
He said he had initial concerns the law may be changed to allow agencies to treat official information requests as a low priority, but he argued the free flow of information is "crucial in a crisis" to promote trust and public confidence.
"I am pleased to say agencies continued to perform strongly during the pandemic thanks to the flexibility of the OIA."
He said accurate and timely information may counteract the impact of disinformation, which he added was a key concern currently worldwide.
Boshier is now calling for public sector chief executives to be held accountable for their agencies' Official Information Act work by including OIA measures in their performance objectives.
"They already have stewardship responsibilities under the Public Service Act and regular reporting on OIA performance is key."
Boshier said the OIA has proven to be fundamentally sound and a crucial check when the Government was exercising "great power" over the lives of individual New Zealanders during the pandemic.
"The fundamental issue is the way agencies are considering and responding to OIA requests. My investigation found this process is only as difficult or as painful as an agency makes it for itself."