Chris Hipkins says he expects ministers to comply with official information requests after Willie Jackson scolded by watchdog

The Prime Minister has stressed his expectation that ministers comply with obligations under the Official Information Act (OIA) and also respond when questioned by the Ombudsman.

It comes after the Ombudsman on Monday scolded MP Willie Jackson for a "trend of human error" in his office leading to delays in responding to the OIA as well as examples of Jackson's office not even properly replying to messages from the watchdog.

One case so concerned the Ombudsman that he considered referring it to the Solicitor-General, but decided against it after an apology from the minister's office. 

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on Monday said he didn't know all the specifics of that case, but understood issues had been resolved. Jackson's office has said the issue related to staffing levels and has since been rectified.

But Hipkins has made clear his expectations of ministers. 

"I absolutely expect ministers to comply with their obligations under the OIA and where asked for information from the Ombudsman, I'd expect them to comply with that as well," he said. 

Hipkins said there have been "significant improvements" in dealing with requests across the span of this Government. 

He said there's been a lot more requests and "they've been responded to faster and with more compliance to the timeframes required to get very, very high levels of compliance".

But Hipkins admits, "from time to time, there will be things that crop up". 

"It's the job of the Ombudsman to follow those up and to make sure the Act has been complied with and I've got confidence that the Ombudsman is doing and doing that vigorously."

He said the Ombudsman will sometimes question ministers' judgements under the OIA. 

"That's the role of the Ombudsman. That's the reason for having the Ombudsman. I have been in a situation in my past ministerial roles where I've disagreed with the Ombudsman, and we've had some significant discussion about it. We've usually been able to resolve that. 

"But the reality is there are always going to be matters as a judgment involved in Official Information Act requests. One of the reasons that we've got someone independent to cast an eye over those judgments is to make sure that the public interest is being really jealously guarded in those decisions."

He said the Ombudsman had the ability to raise issues with him as Prime Minister if he wished to.

In Jackson's case, the Ombudsman said there were three complaints in the second half of last year which involved the minister failing to respond to the requester within the maximum timeframe allowed under the legislation. In two of the cases, the minister also failed to respond to requests from the Ombudsman for an explanation of the delays.

"The Minister told the Ombudsman that the reasons for the delays and lack of correspondence were due to 'human error', resulting from a failure to follow internal OIA processes," a statement said.

"The Minister's office advised that all OIA responses have since been moved to a digital platform that enabled tracking to prevent recurrences of this type of issue."

The Ombudsman ruled the minister had failed to communicate a decision in the correct, timely manner and the failure to meet these statutory obligations was "contrary to law".

In one case, after the Ombudsman made recommendations, but these weren't implemented by a specified date.

"As such, the Ombudsman informed the Minister of his intention to refer the case to the Solicitor-General for consideration and that he would publish a case note."

But the minister's office then apologised, provided a response to the requester and confirmed the office's OIA processes had been reviewed.

"In light of this subsequent action, the Ombudsman decided not to refer the matter to the Solicitor-General."

However, the Ombudsman still called the handling "unacceptable" and "requested that his concerns were drawn to the minister's attention".

The minister's office told Newshub it accepted the findings and has rectified the staffing issues.

There have been concerns about ministers' and government departments' adherence to the OIA before.

Just in March, it emerged that former minister Stuart Nash's office didn't release an email that some argue did fall into the scope of a request. The Chief Ombudsman has reopened his investigation into that. That email, when made public, led to Nash's sacking as a minister.

Last year, the Chief Ombudsman said he was "troubled" by the time it took for Newshub to get a response on a fact-check of the former Prime Minister. 

In September, the Ombudsman released a report titled Ready or Not?, which found there are "significant gaps" in the way agencies respond to information requests. Since then, he's met with a number of groups, including journalists, to discuss his findings. 

"They have told me agencies can be frustratingly slow at making decisions. Reporters work to tight deadlines so that the public are kept informed. They complain that when information is finally released, it belongs in the history books rather than the headlines. The public therefore has limited opportunity to participate or influence officials and decision-makers."

He said the practice of sending department OIA responses to ministers days before the requester "not only takes time but can also lead to suspicion of political interference". This can "undermine public trust and confidence in government". 

"If there is any ministerial interference, gaming or unnecessary consultations or sign-offs taking place, especially for what could be described as high-risk or sensitive requests, this needs to be stopped. The public has a right to be informed and not kept in the dark until the last minute especially in an election year."

At the release of his September report, 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.