Ombudsman to crack down on official information law delays

Watch dogs

Official inquiries have poured into the government during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Ombudsman says he will call ministers and agencies who are dragging their answers

The country’s official information watchdog has warned the government of delays in responding to requests, saying the law must not be “manipulated or undermined”.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has written to ministers, government agencies and local authorities outlining a tougher new approach on unreasonably slow responses to the Official Information Act and requests from local governments.

After taking on the role in 2017, Boshier announced he would pursue informal resolutions to complaints about delays, only making a formal conclusion if ministers or agencies did not take the risk of resolving the issue sooner.

However, earlier this year he expressed concern about an increase in complaints to his office, saying it was natural people would want more government information given the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I understand that agencies are under pressure from a large number of requests under the Official Information Act and the Official Local Government Information and Meetings Act, but they must not lose sight of the need to fulfill their obligations under the laws,” Boshier said.

“My starting point is always that unless there is a good reason to withhold information, it should be made available and without undue delay.”

According to the Ombudsman’s latest annual report, about a third of the approximately 1,400 complaints filed with the OIA in the 2020/21 year concerned delays in decision-making or the release of information.

The Public Service Commission’s own OIA statistics for the last half of 2021 found that 97.3% of requests were answered on time; however, the commission does not currently record the number of extensions or transfers made by agencies or ministers.

“Delays in responding to requests can create suspicion and distrust and I simply cannot allow the act to be manipulated or undermined, deliberately or inadvertently, by any agency or minister subject to it.”
– Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier

Explaining his change in approach, Boshier told Newsroom that he was “increasingly concerned about the delays claimants would have experienced when seeking a decision on a request for official information and the growing perception that OIA’s performance is down”.

“Delays in responding to requests can create suspicion and distrust and I simply cannot allow the act to be manipulated or undermined, deliberately or inadvertently, by any agency or minister subject to it.”

While it would still try to resolve complaints informally and at the lowest possible level, from July a tougher approach would apply if legal deadlines were missed.

“I intend to make formal findings and recommendations in these cases and report to the ministers concerned and publicly to Parliament.”

Responding to requests for access to official information was “the core business of public sector agencies and ministers”, Boshier said.

But the vast majority of government agencies have made no effort to seek additional funding to handle OIA responses, according to the No Right Turn website.

The website asked 32 public sector bodies, the New Zealand Police and Defense Force if they had come up with any budget initiatives to secure additional resources for OIA handling, information management and files, or ministerial teams between 2018 and 2021. Only one – Oranga Tamariki – had made a formal offer. Four had allocated additional resources from their internal baselines and 29 appeared to have done nothing to strengthen their teams.

Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins says he supports efforts to improve OIA timeliness reporting. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The ombudsman’s harder line comes as the government announced next steps in proactively releasing its own information – a regime that sits outside the OIA.

In a statement, Civil Service Minister Chris Hipkins told Newsroom that there has been an overall improvement in the number of OIA requests processed on time since the Civil Service Commission began collecting data in 2016, despite a 110% increase in the volume of requests.

More than 97% of requests have been answered on time now, compared to 91.1% in mid-2016, Hipkins said, while only 0.15% of all responses led to a finding of deficiency by the ombudsman. .

“That doesn’t mean we can’t do better. The Civil Service Commissioner has previously said he will formalize the number of extensions and make them public. I think it is appropriate and I support the Commissioner’s actions.

The Public Service Commission did not respond to a request for comment from the newsroom.