I participated in an Open Government Partnership (OGP) workshop held by engage2 earlier this year. The purpose was to “consult” with civic society in order to “co-create” our next National Action Plan. Today that Action Plan has been released.
A key point I made during the workshop was that we needed to give the Ombudsman teeth. Currently, if a government department decides not to comply with our Official Information Act (OIA), which is to say they decide to act unlawfully, the only consequence is a slap on the wrist from the Ombudsman, if that.
I complained to the Ombudsman that the Ministry of Social Development had not met the timeframe for response defined in the OIA, and received this in response:
In these circumstances, although I have found that the Ministry’s actions were in breach of the requirements set out under the OIA, I do not consider it necessary to make a formal recommendation in this case. However in writing to the Chief Executive of the Ministry today, I have reminded him that I regard timeliness, and compliance with OIA, as a fundamental obligation. The Chief Ombudsman is commencing an ongoing programme of proactive investigations into agencies’ OIA compliance and practices, and drawing public attention to cases where there is demonstrable non-compliance. Although it is inevitable that the work that the Ministry is doing at present to improve its processes will take some time to reach its full effect, it must be progressed as a priority.
The Ombudsman has no power to make government departments follow the legislation they are mandated to enforce. It is this lack of consequences which enables these departments to act unlawfully, the only way to ensure the OIA is followed is to enforce it.
Instead, the State Services Commission (SSC) has come back with a weak commitment to increase the OIA performance of government departments. Let’s be very clear here, the SSC is committing to only reducing the amount government departments break the law, they are not planning to actually enforce the law at all.
This is a positive thing for media outlets and people who are only vaguely interested in one topic or another. However when government departments deny OIA requests of people like Ti Lamusse, from No Pride In Prisons, they prevent advocacy organisations from acting as the watchdogs they are supposed to be.
Overall, the commitments are far too weak. We need stronger commitments from the government to ensure our existing official information law is complied with.