QOTD: Felix Marwick on the OIA and John Key’s hats

I missed this earlier in the week: an update on Felix Marwick’s long-running attempts to uncover the extent of John Key’s communications with bloggers (i.e. Farrar and Slater). The last two paragraphs are spot-on:

What my use of the OIA shows is that leaks and surreptitious acquisition of evidence is the only way you are going to get political material of this nature that is in the public interest. The Official Information Act won’t overcome political self interest as long as politicians are allowed to determine what hat they’re wearing when they’re using public information for their own political ends. Being a Minister and a Prime Minister is a full time job. Politicians shouldn’t get to finagle the system just so as to protect their political manoeuvring. Governments wield immense power so there need to be adequate checks and balances on those that exercise that power.

The other thing you can deduce from a three year battle over access to correspondence is that the most senior politician in the land probably had something to hide.

John Key’s “well I was wearing a different hat at the time” obfuscations were quite literally straight out of Yes, Prime Minister. We’ll probably never know the full truth – especially given Key’s totally-not-suspicious tendency to delete all his text messages – but we can absolutely conclude that he was up to shenanigans he didn’t want the New Zealand public to be aware of, and we need better systems to ensure it cannot happen again.

Charging for OIAs

A number of journos on Twitter have started highlighting the somewhat ridiculous amounts of money they’re being quoted by government departments and DHBs to fulfil requests made under the Official Information Act. The Spinoff had a hilarious take on it.

Apparently this is permissible under the Official Information Act – though the Act itself probably needs an update to deal with the realities of email and OIA-requests-via-Twitter.

But I started pondering if this shows a worrying disconnect between some parts of the public service and the people they theoretically work for – no, not Cabinet Ministers. From my Twitter musings on the topic:

The charging-for-OIAs issue highlights a fundamental disconnect: govt agencies don’t think it’s part of their job to provide information.

So it makes perfect sense to them: finding and collating info for journalists and citizens is additional, and has not been budgeted for.

Whereas journalists and citizens have this odd belief that there’s a basic obligation of transparency and open info from our govt.

Therefore it is baffling and a little scary that our govt agencies want to charge us for access to information which is ours by right.

It would be great to see some real political movement on this. The difficulty is it’s easy enough to demand open and transparent government when you’re in Opposition – and much harder to hold the line once you’re the one in the Beehive trying to govern a country and not look like an utter prat.

But why listen to me on the subject when the canonical text has been around for 36 years?

Who texts the PM?

An OIA request for information about the Prime Minister deleting his text messages is back (hat-tip to @eey0re) and Wayne Eagleson has found another wafer-thin excuse for the wholesale deletion of his master’s cellphone records:

With the large volume of text messages received and sent by the Prime Minister every day, these need to be regularly deleted not only for security reasons but also to ensure that the Prime Minister is always able to send or receive messages by preventing the cellphone exceeding its memory capacity.

What I always like to do with issues around newfangled technology is compare them to an old-school, “real-world” situation. In this case, let’s imagine that Treasury has been OIA’d about documents relating to a policy decision, like cutting taxes. And let’s imagine that the response says, “We can’t produce those papers, because we destroyed them.” And when people say “I’m sorry, what the hell did you just say?” Treasury responds,

With the large volume of documents received and written by the Treasury every day, these need to be regularly incinerated to ensure the Treasury is always able to receive and write documents by preventing our filing cabinets exceeding their capacity.

Yeah, that’s not how it’s meant to work, and they know it.

My view on this issue from day 1 has been: sure, you don’t want to keep sensitive material on a cellphone in case it gets nicked. Sure, cellphones only have a limited memory capacity. But if you are a senior civil servant, or an experienced politician, you know damn well that there is a set of principles and rules around preserving that information for the integrity of the state.

Maybe those rules aren’t completely up-to-date with all the new nifty ways we have of communicating. Maybe there’s not a specific “how to deal with a ton of meaningless text messages about when the car’s arriving” guideline.

So you ask. If you appreciate the need for transparent and accountable government, that is.

Unless, of course, it’s very convenient for you to just go “oh whoops, there’s no guidelines around deleting thousands of messages sent and received by the Prime Minister’s Prime Ministerial cellphone, guess we’ll just erase them.”

Because then no one would ever be able to prove, to pick a random example, just how often he contacts Cameron Slater.

Hiding the government’s failure on poverty

Three weeks ago I snarked John Key’s sudden desire to take serious action on child poverty.

Now, thanks to Radio New Zealand, we know that not only has Treasury been tailoring its advice to meet National’s prejudices, and not only has National got no real intention of changing the way it’s doing things, but they also really, really don’t want to be honest about it.

Radio New Zealand made the request for copies of the officials’ advice in May last year but the documents were only released early this month after repeated complaints to the Ombudsmen’s Office.

John Key has conceded the Government often delays information releases when it is in its political interests to do so. Delaying the release of this advice appears to confirm the Government is sensitive to debate about child poverty.

Before Mr Key became Prime Minister he talked about a growing underclass in New Zealand and his determination to reverse that trend. Information in the documents suggests the Government is yet to make any real impact on the problem.

Next week the Governor-General delivers the Speech from the Throne at the opening of Parliament and this will outline the Government’s broad programme for the next three years.

Just what will it say about lifting children out of poverty?

My guess is it’ll be more of the same: the usual right-wing hand-waving about creating jobs and “incentives” to work – which in practice means sitting back and doing nothing except make it harder and harder for people to actually access vital support when there simply aren’t jobs for them to move into.

John Key’s focus groups are telling him people care about inequality, so he has to go through the motions of caring. But he’s already rejected the recommendations of the Expert Advisory Group on poverty and leads a government which is doing its damnedest to drive down wages and kick people off benefits. Expect a lot of big talk and no real action for another three years.