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Ombudsman’s OIA war continues

With a new Government pledging to be the most open and transparent ever, the watchdog tasked with ensuring it complies with freedom of information laws won’t be easing up the pressure. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

The Chief Ombudsman’s offensive against gaming of the Official Information Act has continued with the announcement of investigations into four government departments.

Judge Peter Boshier’s office will look at environmental and cultural agencies: the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the Ministry for the Environment, the Department of Conservation and Land Information New Zealand.

Whether the agencies have the policies, culture and leadership in place to comply with the OIA will be explored and the findings made public.

The agencies have been chosen because of the Government’s interest in the area and will be the first of many, with Boshier planning to eventually investigate every agency covered by the act.

Staff will be asked for their opinion and members of the public who have made information requests are being encouraged to provide their feedback.

Introduced in 1982, the OIA requires public information to be released unless there is a good reason not to do so.

But it has been eroded over the years, with many voicing their concern about its treatment.

Since taking over the role from Dame Beverley Wakem in late 2015, the former chief Family Court Judge has shaken up the office.

“I just want to say to [Newsroom] and to investigative journalists and reporters that you should expect the very best from Government agencies and local government and then from me in terms of compliance with this Act and nothing short of that is going to be acceptable.”

Arriving at an organisation underfunded and struggling with a reputational issue, Boshier has cracked down and eliminated a backlog of 648 complaints that were clogging the system.

He said agencies were on notice that they were expected to comply with the OIA, something that had not always been happening.

“I think it’s better but I’m disappointed in some aspects of compliance, particularly in local government.

“When I look at ... what seems to me to be some gaming that I’ve perceived that is almost a deliberate attempt to not release as soon as possible because it’s suitable to delay, I’m dejected.”

After starting in the role Boshier said he realised it suited agencies to delay releasing information because any complaints would disappear into his office’s backlog.

But now that had changed he expected behaviour to improve.

While in opposition, Labour called for the Ombudsman to be given stronger powers including the ability to fine agencies for breaches.

Boshier, however, said he was not pushing for changes to the Act and wanted to focus on increasing compliance.

To that end, he recently met with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to explain what information could be withheld to protect officials' ability to have “free and frank” discussions, and what couldn’t.

“I just want to say to [Newsroom] and to investigative journalists and reporters that you should expect the very best from Government agencies and local government and then from me in terms of compliance with this Act and nothing short of that is going to be acceptable.”

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