A proactive release policy was part of the Government’s transparency drive – but a review of its effectiveness is 18 months behind schedule, and there are broader concerns about whether it is walking the talk.

Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government remains committed to improving its openness and accountability, despite a report on one of its key policies in that area being more than 18 months overdue.

In 2018, the Government announced it would proactively release all Cabinet papers within 30 working days of a final decision, without people needing to file an Official Information Act request.

In his Cabinet paper recommending the move, Hipkins said a report back to Cabinet reviewing the policy and its effectiveness would take place by the start of December 2019.

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More than 18 months on from that deadline, that review has still not been completed. Work on a single point of access for the proactively released material, mentioned in the paper, also does not seem to have been meaningfully progressed.

Speaking to Newsroom, Hipkins said there was no particular reason for the report’s delay but there had been “ongoing reviews” about the effectiveness of the proactive releases and where to head next. The proactive release of Cabinet papers was working well, as was that of ministerial diaries – although there were some ministers who “need to be chased from time to time” to meet the required deadlines.

His office had been proactively releasing not just Cabinet papers but all ministerial advice, and others had been doing the same. The next step was to go back to Cabinet and encourage all ministers to adopt those practices, given it was currently up to each minister’s discretion at present.

“When I started doing it, it was a fairly scary concept for the public service and therefore, that sort of transferred to ministers in the things that the public service were saying: ‘This will be terrible, these are all the dire consequences that would come from it’…

“If I’d gone to Cabinet when we did the proactive release of Cabinet papers and said I wanted to go the whole hog, I don’t think it would have gone through.”

Rather than a negative, the approach was a net positive as it reduced the workload of ministers’ offices by having them work on a document’s release only once, rather than every time an OIA request was filed.

A centralised access point for the information was still being considered, Hipkins said, with one of the crucial issues being which agency or organisation oversaw that database given the need for common data standards and cataloguing.

Two potential contenders, the Cabinet Office or the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, did not actually employ that many staff – with the National Library or Archives New Zealand other possible alternatives given the nature of their work.

Speaker Trevor Mallard has asked ministers not to fob off written questions from MPs with an assurance the information will be released proactively, unless that will be the case within a fortnight or less. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Speaker Trevor Mallard has already had to intervene regarding the impact of the proactive release policy on another vital tool for ministerial accountability – Parliamentary written questions, which ministers must answer within six working days. 

National MP and Shadow Leader of the House Chris Bishop told Newsroom he had written to Mallard after ministers responded to some requests with a general assurance the information would be proactively released, only for it to take weeks or months for that to become true.

“It’s a good idea in principle, but it really does give the Government quite a lot of power around control of information, and written questions are a really important part of ministerial accountability – there are a lot of Speakers’ rulings to that effect.”

Bishop said National MPs had encountered similar difficulties with OIA requests, where they waited the full time limit for a response then were rebuffed on the grounds the information would be proactively released, with significant delays for that release to occur.

Mallard told Newsroom ministers had been asked to cite an impending proactive release only if that would take place within two weeks of the question being asked, while the documents also needed to contain the specific information requested.

The proactive release policy should in theory save time in responding to written questions, but “significant unevenness” across ministerial office systems was acting as an obstacle.

“It shouldn’t be that complicated or sophisticated … ministers’ offices, for a whole pile of official information reasons, for the efficiency of doing their jobs, as well as parliamentary accountability, they have to have systems in place that work, otherwise they’ll end up getting the sack.”

Hipkins said he had no issues with Mallard’s instruction, but full compliance would take “a bit of shifting operationally” as most ministers’ systems were structured around monthly release rather than more regular timeframes. A makeshift approach was to provide the dates and titles of information when requested, then hyperlink to the actual documents once they were ready for release later.

“The Official Information Act review has basically died a death, written question answers are not particularly forthcoming, and … there’s not a lot of information forthcoming through the Official Information Act. It’s disappointing.”
– Chris Bishop, Opposition MP

The Government’s commitment to openness and transparency, a perennial topic of debate for any administration, was called into question in a recent comment piece by Stuff journalist Andrea Vance, who described Jacinda Ardern’s ostensible efforts as “an artfully-crafted mirage”.

Hipkins disagreed, and argued that “some of the things that we’re doing, which are making the Government more open and transparent, are therefore attracting more criticism”.

He said ministers were appearing at select committees more frequently than previous governments, while during the Covid-19 response the country’s political leadership had been more accessible to media than most other countries.

Asked whether that public access had come at the expense of answers to more detailed queries behind the scenes, Hipkins said he did not believe that was the case.

Delays in providing some information, such as the numbers for Covid testing in managed isolation facilities, had not been out of a desire to obfuscate but the fact the data systems were being “thrown together to make everything operate at very short notice”.

But Bishop said it was clear the Government had no real interest in improving transparency, despite its “grand promises…[and] Clare Curran’s famous quote that they’d be the most open and transparent government in New Zealand history”.

“The Official Information Act review has basically died a death, written question answers are not particularly forthcoming, and … there’s not a lot of information forthcoming through the Official Information Act. It’s disappointing.”

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

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