An independent reviewer has questioned the last government’s efforts to improve openness and transparency, saying a lack of ambition had led to only “marginal” improvements to practice.

Its successor has not escaped scrutiny, however, with the suggestion that the visibility of the open government role had diminished since Clare Curran lost the job.

A draft report from the Open Government Partnership on New Zealand’s second “national action plan”, covering the period from 2016 to 2018, has been released for public consultation.

The report, from independent researcher Keitha Booth, said while the National government had completed most of its policy commitments, the overall impact of those changes to government practice had been merely “marginal”.

A commitment to make the Budget process more open and transparent, including producing Budget data in machine-readable form, had resulted in improved access to Treasury documents, but economists who researched the Budget 2018 documents appeared unaware of the work.

A pledge to improve official information practices, such as publishing OIA response statistics and making it easier to find OIA information on agency websites, had led to more consistent advice – although a quarter of the 34 departmental websites surveyed had inadequate information.

While compliance for “routine” OIA requests had improved marginally, Booth said journalists and other stakeholders remained concerned about a lack of public accountability, and obstruction and delays for more complex information requests.

Lack of ambition in plan

Booth told Newsroom while the process had improved from the inaugural action plan, there had been a lack of ambition in the targets set the second time around.

“They were essentially activities that they felt they certainly would get completed in that time so they would not be recorded as not completed.”

She did offer praise for the Government’s commitment to improving access to legislation, calling it “transformational work” which would provide a single website for governments, business and the public to understand their legal rights and obligations.

One major concern raised by those she spoke to was the need for OIA reform, with former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer telling her the current system was broken and open to manipulation by ministers.

Booth said the change of government, and decision to have an open government portfolio, had made the work more visible and led to greater public engagement.

However, that had diminished since Curran relinquished the role following her resignation.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says he has been pushing hard for the Government to go further and faster on OIA reform. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins, who absorbed Curran’s open government responsibility, told Newsroom he agreed with Booth about the scope of the “utterly unambitious plan” under the last government, saying the follow-up plan for 2018 to 2020 was more ambitious but there was room to do even more.

“Rather than taking the new plan as being the ultimate end state, I’m going to push hard to go even further and faster.”

Hipkins said he had pushed for more proactive releases of information, such as Cabinet papers and ministerial diaries, saying that was in line with the spirit of the OIA and would reduce the administrative burden for offices.

He denied there had been any reduction in open government activity since he took the role from Curran, saying he had managed to progress some reforms which had been “kicking around for some time”.

“I don’t think anyone’s taken their foot off the accelerator – in fact, quite the opposite.”

Nick Smith, National’s open government spokesman, had not yet read the interim report but told Newsroom increasing the transparency of government was more challenging in practice than in theory.

“The Government holds large stores of valuable information, and there are really big gains for New Zealand if it can be made more accessible; the challenge is in terms of still having reasonable processes by which governments can make good decisions and around issues of privacy.”

National MP Nick Smith says the party is still working on its policy for OIA reform, but he believes the legislation is in need of update. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Smith said the “natural setting” of many government agencies was still to be protective and cautious about releasing information they held.

Smith was critical of the Government’s progress on improving openness and transparency, saying there was a gap between its “loud promises” and action, particularly since Curran’s resignation.

Plans to proactively release Cabinet papers were no stronger than what the Ombudsman’s office had recommended, while it had led to greater frustrations when registering a complaint about proactively released information.

While the OIA legislation had been best practice at the time of its creation, Smith said work was now needed to improve both the law and the culture that had developed around it.

National had not yet formed plans for OIA reform, but the topic would be included in a policy paper on the justice sector to be released before the next election.

Justice Minister Andrew Little confirmed to Newsroom last year that a review of the OIA was back on the table.

However, his office did not respond to requests for comment about his progress since then on any reform.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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