Willie Jackson called out over 'trend of human error' in office, Ombudsman considered referring case to Solicitor-General

The Chief Ombudsman has called out Minister for Māori Development Willie Jackson over a "trend of human error" in his office causing delays with responding to the Official Information Act (OIA).

The Ombudsman said Jackson's office has consistently failed to respond to correspondence from the Ombudsman's office and a lack of compliance with statutory requirements was "unacceptable".

In one case, the minister's office's failure to follow recommendations in a timely manner meant the Ombudsman considered referring the case to the Solicitor-General. But, after an apology from the minister's office, decided against it.

In a statement on Monday, the Chief Ombudsman said he had dealt with three separate complaints in the second half of last year about delays by the Minister for Māori Development in responding to requests for official information under the OIA.

Each of the three complaints involved the minister failing to respond to the requester within the maximum timeframe allowed under the legislation, the Ombudsman said. In two of the cases, the minister also failed to respond to requests from the Ombudsman for an explanation of the delays, the statement said.

"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," it 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 has formed the opinion that the minister failed to meet the relevant timeliness obligations under the OIA for all three complaints. 

"The Minister failed to make and communicate a decision on the requests as soon as reasonably practicable and no later than 20 working days after the requests were received. The failure to meet these statutory obligations was contrary to law," the statement said.

"In two cases the Ombudsman made recommendations to the Minister. The Ombudsman also expressed concern over the Minister's office's lack of robust internal OIA processes."

The Ombudsman wrote to the minister expressing concern  "that there had been a trend of human error causing delays".

"He also noted that there had been a consistent lack of responses to correspondence from the Ombudsman's office and that the lack of compliance with the statutory criteria in all three cases was 'unacceptable'.

"The Minister expressed his apologies, on behalf of his office, to all three requesters, and to the Ombudsman for failing to process and provide official information in a timely manner."

Willie Jackson.
Willie Jackson. Photo credit: Getty Images.

In one case, the minister received an OIA request on June 7, 2022, for copies of documents "pertaining to ministerial exemptions under the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Act 2009 for several financial entities".

On June 29, the requester emailed the minister about a lack of response. Another follow-up email was sent on July 8, and then on July 11, the requester complained to the Ombudsman.

In this case, the minister was meant to make and communicate a decision on the OIA response by July 7 at the latest.

On August 5, the Ombudsman made preliminary inquiries with the minister's office, but received no response.

A month later, the Ombudsman invited the minister to make comment on the provisional opinion that he had "failed to comply with the requirement" to make a decision and communicate it as soon as reasonably practicable and no later than July 7.

"The Minister did not provide any response or explanation to the Ombudsman by the requested date of 19 September 2022. Nor did the Minister make and communicate a decision to the complainant."

At the end of September, the Ombudsman made the final opinion that the minister "had failed to meet the relevant statutory obligations under the OIA". 

"The Ombudsman highlighted the failure to make and communicate a decision to the complainant, and the absence of any response or explanation for what had occurred."

"In response, the Minister apologised for not responding to correspondence. The Minister stated that the information requested was straightforward and there was no reason for the delay other than staff failed to follow OIA processes."

The Ombudsman recommended the minister make responding to the request a "priority", review his office's procedures and remind his staff of the statutory obligations.

However, the recommendations weren't met by the specified date of October 28 meaning "the minister did not meet the public duty to observe the recommendations". 

"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."

In November 2022, the minister's office apologised, provided a response to the requester, and confirmed the 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.