Cultural managements

Government Media Response Teams Violate OIA, Need ‘Fundamental Cultural Shift’ – Ombudsman’s Report

Government media response teams are breaking official news laws and need “a fundamental cultural shift”, a new report concludes.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has released his follow-up to the 2015 review of government Official Information Act (OIL) practices, Not a Game of Hide and Seek.

Overall, he concluded that the 12 government agencies surveyed were now more transparent, with more information proactively released.

However, he found multiple breaches of the law in the way media queries were handled. While most government agencies have separate teams that handle questions from journalists, these requests are still covered by the OIA.

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Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has released a new report on public service OIA practices

Provided

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has released a new report on public service OIA practices

But the “apparent rejection by some agency media teams of the OIA legislation that underpins their work” was fueling distrust of public agencies, Boshier found.

In several cases, the media teams failed to specify the reason for the refusal of information or to let the journalist know that he could lodge a complaint with the Ombudsman. Questions were also “passed” to a formal OIA process.

Boshier called for an end to overly complicated OIA processes that resulted in routine 20-day waits.

“When I look at the grounds for denial, it’s pretty straightforward. Many applications can be processed quite quickly…It’s not so much the law as the process departments go through. Their process can be as quick as they choose to do it, or it can be just as difficult and painful.It really is up to them.

Boshier also raised concerns about the OIA’s lack of training and found that all 12 agencies had issues with record keeping and information management. Both were issues previously highlighted in former Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem’s 2015 report.

“There were some improvements, but the improvements weren’t deep enough,” Boshier said. “There is a lack of appreciation from the leadership on the fundamental importance of this act.”

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The pandemic response underscored the importance of the public knowing how decisions were made, he said.

Boshier commended the Public Service Commission for its commitment to improving OIA compliance. However, he called on directors general of ministries to be held accountable for their agency’s OIA work by including OIA metrics in their performance criteria.

Civil Service Commissioner Peter Hughes said his expectations of agency bosses were already clear.

“We want to get it right, but where it’s not happening I want to know and I’ll make sure everything is fixed.”

He said the agencies deal with media inquiries in good faith and as quickly as possible.

Earlier this month, Hughes concluded that the public sector is “performing well in its OIA obligations”.

This was based on new statistics from the OIA showing that agencies took an average of 12.5 business days to respond to OIA requests, in the six months to June. However, high-volume, fast-turnaround requests can mask deeper issues. Thirty-one agencies had average response times of over 20 days.

The 12 agencies covered by Boshier’s report were: the Public Service Commission; the Ministries of Justice, Education, Health, Social Development, Transport and Foreign Affairs and Trade; VAC; Fixes; New Zealand Transport, Customs and Defense Force Agency.