Bryce Edwards: Public sector bosses must be held accountable for undermining transparency

Bryce Edwards: Public sector bosses must be held accountable for undermining transparency

Public service bosses earn mega-salaries, yet oversee bureaucracies that frequently undermine transparency and frustrate public and media scrutiny. The obvious answer is to start docking the pay of chief executives for the failures of their agencies.

This is the upshot of an investigation by the Chief Ombudsman’s Office into the performance of government departments in releasing public information under the Official Information Act (OIA). The Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, found that although there are some things to celebrate about how agencies are fulfilling their obligations under the OIA, there are also very concerning ways information is being illegally buried or constrained.

How government agencies are undermining transparency

Boshier’s report, titled “Ready or Not”, says public sector bosses are failing to ensure their own agencies follow the law when it comes to allowing the public and media to scrutinise what they are doing. Bureaucracies are essentially abusing the OIA by keeping public information secret, or at least delaying its release, and manipulating the process to suit authorities and politicians.

The report examined the compliance of 12 government agencies and found breaches of the law were common. The Ombudsman said the practices of some agencies had “little or nothing to do with the law itself”.

He was highly critical of the time it takes government agencies to deliver information that should be public. The routine wait of 20 working days for information to be supplied is unnecessarily long, and the processes are overly-complicated. In fact, an earlier report showed that 31 government departments have average response times that exceed the 20 day limit.

Part of the problem identified by Boshier is that agencies have not invested in adequate record keeping and information management. Many don’t have proper OIA training for the relevant staff who deal with the requests.

Here’s a summary from the Ombudsman about the problems: “I am growing increasingly concerned about the experiences journalists are reporting and the apparent dismissal by some agency media teams of the OIA legislation which underpins their work. In fact, the processes adopted by the agencies have little or nothing to do with the law itself and I intend to consider this matter further.”

He says there is now growing mistrust and suspicion amongst journalists and others who need to use the OIA for their jobs.

The Nefarious role of government spin doctors

Government spin doctors get much of the blame for undermining transparency in the new report. Communications staff who work in the Beehive and government agencies are growing in numbers and power. And according to the report they appear to be flouting the law. The Ombudsman says government spin doctors need “a fundamental cultural change” in order to make politics more transparent.

Boshier found that many government media teams didn’t even seem to understand the law that they are charged with fulfilling. For example, Boshier says: “There appears to be a widespread misapprehension that many media information requests don’t fall under the OIA, and that applying the law is difficult and complicated. These perceptions are false.”

For example, his investigation found “multiple examples of media teams” breaching the section of the law which requires a reason to be given when declining OIA requests. Boshier says: “Media teams are failing to give journalists a reason when they refuse to provide information or inform them of their right to complain to me.”

According to the report, Beehive staff are also playing a particularly problematic role in stifling the provision of information that is given by the different government agencies. Reporting on the Ombudsman’s investigation, Herald journalist David Fisher says: “It identified occasions in which ministerial officials tried to limit the scope of information released or tried to change an agency’s decision about what was to be released.”

Furthermore, Boshier is concerned that government departments are delaying the release of information and giving Government ministers three to five days of advance warning that such information is going out. According to Boshier the “no surprises” policy is being abused, and generally ministers should only be given the information at the same time that it is released or, at most, the day before.

The Solution is more accountability for public sector CEOs

Although government communications staff are undermining transparency in the way they deal with OIA requests, there’s an increasing call for bosses of each agency to be held accountable for their operations – or even with the Public Service Commission, which oversees all the agencies. As Boshier points out, in terms of the OIA, “There is a lack of appreciation of leadership of how fundamentally important this act is.”

Political commentator Liam Hehir argued yesterday: “The simple solution is to hold public sector CEOs personally accountable for their agencies in the same way that company directors are. If they aren’t proactively ensuring compliance then they should be personally fined.”

The Chief Ombudsman hasn’t directly put forward such a controversial solution himself, but he is pointing the finger at the public service bosses as the ones that need to be held accountable for the OIA failings. In fact, Boshier has recommended that OIA metrics be included as part of the performance criteria of public service bosses’ annual reviews. Their salaries, bonuses, and continued employment should be predicated on the basis of performance objectives that include how well their agency is delivering information to the public. And Boshier has stressed that public sector bosses need to ensure that their organisations have the systems in place – and the resources – to adequately handle their OIA obligations.

With the average public sector boss earning $485,000 in 2020/21, this could be an effective way to bring about improvements. Docking the pay of those at the top of poorly performing agencies might see OIA requests suddenly get processed faster and with more openness.

Of course, the Public Service Commission is unlikely to be keen on such changes. The head of the PSC, Peter Hughes, has come out to suggest change is already occurring and the expectations for chief executives are already clear enough. And in terms of OIA compliance, he said yesterday: “We want to get it right, but where that is not happening, I want to know about it, and I will make sure it is fixed.” And he is already very positive about how his agencies are delivering in this regard, concluding earlier this month that the public sector is “performing well on its OIA obligations”.

Unfortunately, the Public Service Commission is also refusing to release the current performance objectives and assessments for its agency bosses.

Is Labour the most transparent government ever?

In the wake of this report, which suggests that there are some big problems in terms of core transparency in government agencies, the Public Services Minister Chris Hipkins has reiterated claims that his administration is better than any previous ones: “I think we’re more transparent than previous governments have been.”

The Prime Minister has also been questioned about the performance of OIA requests under her administration, and claims there is not such a problem, explaining that some requests for information from the media just get “lost in the post”.

Perhaps it’s time for the Prime Minister to take those transparency lapses a bit more seriously. She could start by insisting that government department bosses lift their game or face financial penalty.

 

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  

 

Further reading on Official Information Act abuse

David Fisher (Herald): Chief Ombudsman’s OIA inquiry finds ‘significant gaps’ and law flouted by government spin doctors
Nikki Macdonald (Stuff): Government media response teams breaching OIA and need ‘fundamental cultural change’ – Ombudsman’s report
RNZ: Government OIA response processes fuelling growing mistrust – Ombudsman
Rachel Sadler (Newshub): Chief Ombudsman finds ‘significant gaps’ during probe into Official Information Act
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): Ombudsman slams responses to media questions by govt agencies (paywalled)
Amelia Wade (Newshub): Chief Ombudsman ‘troubled’ by time Government took to release list of meetings
Brent Edwards (NBR): Chief Ombudsman: Public service must do better on OIA requests(paywalled)
Herald: Vodafone boss defends rebranding to One NZ after claims of white supremacist connotations
No Right Turn: If we can’t trust the Ombudsman, who can we trust?

 

Other items of interest and importance today

KELVIN DAVIS ATTACK ON KAREN CHHOUR
Jamie Ensor and Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis rings Māori ACT MP Karen Chhour to apologise for ‘Pākehā world’ comment
Imogen Wells (Newshub): Deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis tells Māori ACT MP Karen Chhour she needs to leave ‘her Pākehā world’
Audrey Young (Herald): Willie Jackson draws howls of derision in Question Time(paywalled)
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Oranga Tamariki minister challenges ACT MP to enter Māori world
Molly Swift (Newshub): Oriini Kaipara says Labour’s Kelvin Davis owes ACT’s Karen Chhour an apology after ‘degrading’ comments
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk): Kelvin Davis’ ‘how Māori are you’ routine yesterday was a disturbing trip backwards
David Farrar: NZ Labour has lower standards than UK Labour

GOVERNMENT AND PARLIAMENT
1News: Poll: Approval ratings of Jacinda Ardern, Christopher Luxon revealed
1News: ‘Like living in a gulag’ – Kiwis divided as next election approaches

Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Kelvin Davis, the ‘bulldozer’ of Oranga Tamariki, on why he won’t close the children’s ministry
1News: MP Kiri Allan and RNZ presenter Māni Dunlop engaged
RNZ: RNZ’s Māni Dunlop announces engagement to Justice Minister Kiri Allan
Stuff: Justice Minister Kiri Allan engaged with ‘very on brand’ airport proposal to radio presenter Māni Dunlop
Herald: Justice Minister Kiri Allan engaged to radio presenter Māni Dunlop
Ian Llewellyn (BusinessDesk): Beehive papers say there must be room for a view(paywalled)
Andy Fyers (BusinessDesk): PollTracker: advantage right, but it’s still tight (paywalled)
BusinessDesk: BusinessDesk and IPANZ launch survey of public servants

INTEGRITY IN POLITICS
Waatea News: Tamihere responds to NZ Herald allegations
Herald: John Tamihere calls for Electoral Law changes amid funding investigation(paywalled)
Jonty Dine (RNZ): Te Pāti Māori president claims party ‘demonised’ by political donations investigation
Glenn McConnell and Denise Piper (Stuff): John Tamihere defends his charities’ payments and loans to his political campaigns
Ben Thomas (Stuff): Nanaia Mahuta has been scrupulous. She deserves better than a whitewash

LOCAL GOVERNMENT ELECTIONS
Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): They call it “democracy” – but they’re lying
Katie Todd (RNZ): ‘Abysmal’ early voter turnout raises questions around approach to local elections
Newshub: Local Government Minister hasn’t received voting papers, Newshub understands
Justin Wong (Stuff): What do mana whenua want from the next councils in the Wellington region?
Hamish McNeilly (Stuff): Big tick energy: Mayoral aspirant’s push for ticks could render votes invalid
Debbie Jamieson (Stuff): ‘Dirty politics’ in Queenstown mayoral campaign, candidate looks to sue
Nicholas Boyack (Stuff): Lower Hutt mayor Campbell Barry signed Labour Party pledge

AUCKLAND MAYORAL ELECTION
Duncan Greive (Spinoff): Wayne Brown and the cantankerous track to the mayoralty
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Wayne Brown opens up a storm in a port
Tim Murphy and Matthew Scott (Newsroom): The people Wayne or Efeso must really win over
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Enemy’s enemy is my friend

HEALTH
Rowan Quinn (RNZ): Nurses warned plan to turn down extra shifts next week likely illegal
Gill Bonnett (RNZ): Health ministers queried why nurses not on fast track residence list, papers show
RNZ: High demand at Christchurch Hospital sees surgeries rescheduled

Mihingarangi Forbes (Newshub): Poll reveals just 54 percent of Māori babies immunised on time
David Farrar: The shameful fall in immunisation rates
Carmen Hall (Herald): ‘Despicable’ Govt should axe GST off quality of life meds(paywalled)
Isaac Davison (Herald): Banning booze in sports: Can Green MP Chloe Swarbrick get support for her alcohol reforms? (paywalled)
1News: Pharmac announce consultation on potentially life-saving drug
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Cancer drug crusader Malcolm Mulholland diagnosed with cancer
Jase Te Patu (Herald): The state of mental health in Aotearoa is sickening and needs immediate injection of love and care
Hinemoa Elder (Herald): The power of karakia in mental health
Alwyn Poole (Kiwiblog): I don’t know much about politics – so please explain to me …

EDUCATION
Peter Dunne: Youth crisis looming
Michael Johnston (Herald): Is the Ministry of Education fit for purpose? (paywalled)
John Gerritsen (RNZ): Some schools discourage enrolments of children with disabilities – Education Review Office
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): The school looking worst-hit by equity funding changes – and why they’re not complaining
Jamie Morton (Herald): ‘World class’ observatory to close amid AUT cuts

MEDIA
Katie Scotcher (RNZ): Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson cites ‘no trust’ in defence of public media entity
Antony Young (Stuff): The TVNZ-RNZ merger: a solution looking for a problem
Mike Hosking (Newstalk): Media merger another example of failed ideology
Isobel Ewing (Newshub): RNZ-TVNZ merger: Veteran Kiwi producer says draining NZ On Air’s funding will ‘wipe out local production companies.’
David Farrar: Labour spending $368 million to merge two companies worth $366 million!

VODAFONE ACCUSED OF RACISM FOR NEW NAME
Herald: Vodafone boss defends rebranding to One NZ after claims of white supremacist connotations
Brianna Mcilraith (Stuff): Vodafone chief executive defends ‘racist’ name change on Twitter
Esther Taunton (Stuff): Far right group One New Zealand Foundation happy to share name with rebranded Vodafone
Esther Taunton (Stuff): Could Vodafone’s rebrand to One New Zealand backfire?

CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT
The Country: Setting the record straight on emissions pricing
Adrian Macey and Dave Frame (BusinessDesk): ‘Inaccurate’ methane measure drives NZ climate policy (paywalled)
Adrian Macey and Dave Frame (BusinessDesk): Is it just hot air? Methane meets politics in NZ’s climate policy (paywalled)

ECONOMY, EMPLOYMENT AND INEQUALITY
Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): New migrant exploitation regime promises tougher approach
Caitlin Rawling (Newshub): Government introduces Worker Protection Bill to ‘stamp out’ migrant exploitation in Aotearoa
Shane Te Pou (Herald): Blues in the boardroom? Give me a break (paywalled)
William Hewett (Newshub): Cost of living crisis: Green Party calling for universal $110 weekly payment for families with toddlers
Simon Bridges (NBR): Recession or not, New Zealand should back itself (paywalled)
Brent Edwards (NBR): How many central bankers should really lose their jobs?(paywalled)

HOUSING
Reweti Kohere (Spinoff): New Zealand’s poor housing ‘a failure of our democracy’
Eva Corlett (Guardian): New Zealand: average stay in emergency housing rises seven-fold in five years
Greg Presland (The Standard): Comrade Chris wants to solve Aotearoa’s housing crisis

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Graeme Edgeler (Democracy Project): The Periodic Review of the Intelligence and Security Act 2017

Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): Our man in London: Phil Goff set to be confirmed as UK high commissioner
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): The case for and against expelling Russian Ambassador from NZ
RNZ: New Zealand imposes further sanctions against Putin-linked individuals

JUSTICE
Peter Davis (Herald): The perception of ram raids and violent crime and the reality(paywalled)
Chelsea Daniels (Herald): Study finds link between young ram-raiders and family harm events
Herald Editorial: Long arm of the law overreaching by faking stolen car reports(paywalled)
Alice Snedden (Spinoff): What if we scrapped prisons altogether?

PLAYCENTRE CO-GOVERNANCE
David Farrar: Welcome to our future
Nick Brook (ODT): Playcentre vote overturned

OTHER
Karanama Ruru (Stuff): Only four out of ten young Kiwis are happy, Stuff NowNext survey finds
Michael Webster (Stuff): Kiwis must know their rights, and organisations their obligations, on privacy
Jamie Ensor (Stuff): Kauri Lounge: The secret airport lounge for VIPs there are no official photos of
Hanna McCallum (Stuff): Colonisation impacts ‘far from over’, human rights commissioner says
Rebecca Wadey (Stuff): Ex-National Party deputy leader Nikki Kaye: ‘My health isn’t perfect’
John Williamson (Herald): We need a new system for funding roads in Northland and NZ(paywalled)
Tom Hunt (Stuff): Prepare to slow: Drastic speed cuts across NZ needed on the ‘road to zero’