Comment

Chasing a fuller OIA ‘menu’

Government agencies sharing more of their information with us would help realise the Official Information Act's original progressive intent, writes OIA bibliographer and librarian Dave Clemens

There’s a line that follows a famous scene in the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally’, uttered by a fellow restaurant diner upon witnessing the performance of one of the stars. “I’ll have what she’s having!” says the impressed observer to her waitress.

For about 20 years I’ve wondered what my fellow OIA ‘diners’ are getting served up as a result of their requests; what, really, is on the Official Information menu, and what has already been released?

That’s been a big ask in the past, with thousands of requests pouring in each year and the recordkeeping capability of various government agencies something of a mixed bag. The Directory of Official Information may be of some help but with more than 3000 entities to cover, where is the information-seeker to start when the answer is not self-evident?

There is also some very useful work being done at fyi.org.nz but the number of requests submitted there seem to be quite a small proportion of the official annual totals listed by the State Services Commission.

There have been some helpful initiatives beyond the Directory itself and Archives New Zealand has an audit role in relation to record-keeping requirements of government under the Public Records Act. While there may be no ‘whole of government’ approach to OIA request record-keeping, two of our freedom of information sheriffs, in the form of State Services Commissioner Hughes and the Chief Ombudsman, seem to have a renewed interest in measuring how well the OIA is working.

One new focus is in the gathering of basic statistics on proactive release of information and, more specifically, how many OIA request responses are being published online. Maybe these online disclosure logs can provide the basis for building an OIA release ‘catalogue’? But that may depend on the quality of descriptive metadata captured in any agency’s record-keeping system.

I’m struck by the power of Treasury’s ‘beliefs’ in determining what requested and released information may or may not contribute to ‘balanced public debate’ or be ‘of little or no public interest’.

If this were to be progressed then we may have the potential to move toward what Australian academic Johan Lidberg calls freedom of information 2.0. His research looks at the transition to a second generation information ‘push’ model of proactive disclosure away from a first generation ‘pull’ approach. He also suggests that some Australian State-based systems may be able to make the leap without requiring legislative reform. There may be lessons for our incoming Open Government Minister Claire Curran in Lidberg’s work, in building on what is already underway in parts of Wellington, without needing any new legislation.

In an attempt to find out more about OIA-released information being posted online by various agencies I recently compared the request statistics published by the SSC with the OIA responses page of The Treasury. I chose the Treasury because they appear to have some serious record-keeping capability, both in systems and staffing. They also receive a decent number of requests each year to work on.

While there’s no precise match between the request statistics displayed on relevant web pages it would appear that Treasury posted under half of the 292 OIA ‘requests handled’ (SSC’s terminology) as actual responses on its website.

There are 118 responses listed here for July 1 2016 to June 30 2017.

Treasury’s reply to my own recent OIA request identified the following reasons why they may decide not to publish OIA responses on their web site

- We believe that publishing does not contribute to balanced public debate, or

- that publishing would distort balanced debate (due to a lack of context), or

- there is little or no public interest in the material, or

- there are potential legal risks if the material was to be published.

There’s more to be measured and explained in the reasons and statistics above but each new request potentially takes 20 working days to receive the next piece of the OIA puzzle, and then formulate better questions in turn (an OIA request submitted on December 15, for example, would not be ‘due’ a response until February 5, 2018 owing to the summer break).

Putting the stated potential legal risks aside for now, I’m struck by the power of Treasury’s ‘beliefs’ in determining what requested and released information may or may not contribute to ‘balanced public debate’ or be ‘of little or no public interest’. How hard might it be to test such beliefs against those of the New Zealand public, and to present us all with a fuller OIA ‘menu’ instead?

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