The NZ Herald reported yesterday that the Office of the Ombudsman is planning an investigation into the way that the public service is responding to requests under the Official Information Act (OIA).
This came after the Ombudsman’s investigation into the Ministry of Education’s handling of OIA requests on the school closures in Canterbury, which highlighted some real issues in how these were being dealt with.
Rather than being a problem specific to the Ministry of Education, the Ombudsman has suggested this could be a broader issue across the public service. Their investigation will examine:
Whether the policies and practices of agencies under review are fit for purpose, in that they ensure timely and appropriate responses to all information requests, and that they are not circumvented in some instances.
As I’ve written before, the Office of the Ombudsman is chronically underfunded. They are drowning in complaints from people who are unhappy with the responses they’ve received from Minister’s offices and government departments.
In fact, there are so many complaints (2,800) that they are now writing to those who have complained to explain the delays they are likely to expect. Our office has received one of these letters – a complaint that was sent in October last year is now one of approximately 450 that haven’t even been allocated to a staff member.
This is a real threat to transparency. If Ministers know that there is little point in anyone complaining to the Ombudsmen, where is the incentive for them to actually disclose what they should?
I hope that this investigation by the Ombudsman into wider public agencies will help to remind Ministers of their obligations under the Act and improve the way OIA requests are handled. This would hopefully reduce the need for complaints to the Ombudsman and in turn reduce their workload, clearing the way for their office to do the work they should be focusing on.