‘Open up the Closed Government Act’

Political scientist Bryce Edwards calls on public servants, academics and journalists to form a coalition to fix the Official Information Act.

Calling all journalists, academics, public servants, political activists, and members of the public who believe in the need for government to be more open with its information. We need to form a coalition to fix the Official Information Act (OIA).

It’s time for everyone who believes in reforming the OIA processes to join together and campaign to make that actually happen. Such a coalition could guide the new government in making the necessary changes so that New Zealand is once again a world leader in open government, the way we were in 1982 when the extraordinary act was introduced.

The OIA itself may still be fit for purpose, but the wider official information system desperately needs review, especially in the way that the act is adhered to by government. At the moment, it often functions more as the Closed Government Act. See more from Sam Sachdeva earlier today on the Government's refusal to release a 38 page agreement signed when the coalition Government was formed.

Now is the perfect time to act. Whenever a new government is formed, it’s normally enthusiastic and idealistic about fixing problems in the system. And when it comes to problems with the OIA, the parties coming in from opposition are highly sensitive to its faults because they’ve been on the receiving end of governments keeping an overly-tight grip on information.

The parties making up the new coalition government have protested strongly against abuses of the OIA that occurred under National. So, hopefully they’ll want to prioritise some sort of review aimed at fixing the problems.

Clare Curran is the minister with responsibility for “Open Government”, as part of her role as Associate Minister for State Services. She has already committed her government to doing much better than the last government in terms of releasing information. But in a recent interview with the Otago Daily Times’ Eileen Goodwin, Curran wasn’t very clear about whether any reform of the OIA would be forthcoming.

Instead, journalists are now leading the way in calls for reform. Newsroom’s Shane Cowlishaw has recently explored all of these issues in his must-read article, The OIA is broken, can it be fixed? He says, “the spirit of this law has dissolved in an air of contempt that has spread, like a stain, from the top down”.

Cowlishaw reflects on his own experiences as a journalist, noting the growth of government department spin-doctors, and saying that the “ever-growing mighty wall of 'comms staff' has seemingly forgotten its obligation to the public in a desire to protect its Ministers from embarrassment."

"The effect on the OIA has been chilling. I started my first journalism job in 2008, the same year that the John-Key led National stormed to power. Since then I have witnessed the slow erosion of good-faith as more and more information is withheld, for more and more dubious reasons. By all accounts, this problem had begun escalating before 2008 under the previous Labour government, but it gathered steam under National.”

The window of opportunity on OIA reform is particularly narrow because, by its very nature, the Act is generally much more useful to opposition parties than governments. Even the most democratically-minded MPs, who come into government with a fresh memory of how damaging OIA abuse is to democracy, quickly find themselves less keen on a properly-observed OIA and more comfortable with the advantages that such abuse now affords them.

On becoming Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern announced “I also want this government to feel different, I want people to feel that it’s open, that it’s listening and that it’s going to bring kindness back.”

Researcher and journalist Max Rashbrooke pointed out “This sounds very promising. It is, though, the sort of thing that new leaders often say but which is much harder to sustain when they are under full attack from an Opposition searching for dirt, embarrassing official information act requests are landing, and so on.”

Matthew Hooton wrote in Friday’s NBR on the urgent need to encourage reforms right now: “Let us therefore give Ms Curran the benefit of the doubt and encourage her in her work. A functioning official information regime is absolutely essential to our democracy. For that reason, let us hope she also acts speedily in her work – and also because the Ms Curran facing re-election in 2020 will inevitably no longer have the same honourable attitude toward government transparency as the enthusiastic new minister we see in November 2017.”

The new government – as well as the opposition – need some constructive encouragement to take this key area of democracy very seriously and make sure it’s fit for purpose.

I’m keen to bring together participants, set up forums, and help establish a way for interested parties to come up with ideas about how to move ahead. At the very least, such a campaign could compile all the complaints and examples of how the OIA isn’t working, or is being thwarted and put everyone in touch who has an interest in OIA reform.

There’s a lot to consider. For example: Does the legislation need fixing, or just the way that the OIA is observed? Is there a need for a new Information Authority that would be responsible for overseeing the operation of the OIA, and teach government departments and the public how to use and adhere to it? Or is the Ombudsman’s Office best placed to carry out these functions? And is it resourced and empowered enough to fulfil such a role? Should there be stronger penalties for abuse of the OIA? Does the OIA need to be extended to Parliament, or at least to some of its agencies such as the Parliamentary Service?

The new coalition government has specifically made a commitment to “strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information”. This wording is in the confidence and supply coalition agreement between Labour the Greens, and it could quite easily also be the stated focus of a new Campaign for Open Government.

If you’re interested, please get in touch. Contact me: bryce.edwards@vuw.ac.nz

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