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Making official Information flow again

Written By: - Date published: 2:08 pm, December 4th, 2017 - 31 comments
Categories: Abuse of power, accountability, democracy under attack, democratic participation, Dirty Politics, helen clark, john key, leadership, Media - Tags:

This morning on RNZ there was an excellent interview with the Chief Ombudsmen, Peter Boshier.

He explains the failures of the OIA process and sheets it back to a lack of enforcement, a lack of top down leadership and the practice of political advisers putting public servants under pressure to withhold or redact information.

He points out the “no surprises” policy has been distorted from its purpose. Its purpose was for Ministers to get advanced warning of announcements so they would not be embarrassed in the corridor when bailed up on it in a corridor.

Instead it has been used by governments to pressure or delay the release of the information.  It probably started in the middle of Helen Clark’s Labour Government.  It was manna from heaven for a guy with Key’s low ethical standards (if it is legal it’s ok – a mantra which completely ignored the Cabinet Manual he presided over).

To be clear Boshier is suggesting that when CEO of Kiwirail wanted to release a report on rail, under the no surprises policy he is obligated to let the Minister know what he is going to release and when. It is NOT an opportunity for the Minister to direct it be delayed, redacted or buried. BUT that is what political advisers did.

Laws are only as good as the ability to enforce and the intention of those in a position to subvert, to not. John Key presided over 9 years of “pretty legal” and “if it isn’t illegal or we won’t get caught it is ok, or if we get caught what can they do? This presumably is a course of action he learned in his career?

It is not good enough in Government when you represent the interests of all New Zealanders and have sworn to uphold the law to behave that way. Again the Cabinet manual is very clear that in their personal and professional capacity all Ministers must behave according to the law “and” to the highest standard of ethics. The last 2 prime Ministers ignored the second directive from the Manual when dealing with breaches by their MPs.  Boshier suggested that once his office mad eit clear they would call out Ministers subverting the OIA, the flow of information speeded up.

David Fisher, of the Herald, wrote a good article on the OIA back in 2014. You can read it here.

The entire interview with Peter Boshier

31 comments on “Making official Information flow again”

  1. Boshier suggested that once his office mad eit clear they would call out Ministers subverting the OIA, the flow of information speeded up.

    Ministers subverting the OIA need to be jailed.

    • Keepcalmcarryon 1.1

      Why not. Make the cabinet manual enforceable.
      How have we allowed consecutive governments to destroy the rights and wages of workers while allowing the politicians to increasingly please themselves?

      • Our entire governmental system is based around the MPs doing what they think is right and not necessarily what the populace wants. So we get FTAs and asset sales that are against the wishes of the majority of people while the government claims to have a mandate.

  2. patricia bremner 2

    Tracey, on what grounds do you say delays in OIA probably started under Helen Clark?

    Could you cite an instance when that happened, or are you assuming it did?

    Given the almost constant delays, and actual ignoring of requests under Key, I just think this a “they did it too” without actual proof.

    • veutoviper 2.1

      Tracey, on what grounds do you say delays in OIA probably started under Helen Clark?

      Yes, this jumped out at me too. Tracey, I would really like to see some evidence, links etc for this statement. My recollections of the Clarke years were that compliance with OIA procedures and timelines were strongly ‘encouraged’ (with me being one of the enforcers in the Depts etc I worked in over that period) unlike the change in attitudes apparent with the change of government in 2008.

      PS – the David Fisher link does not work for me.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 2.2

      David Fisher link.

      The shift really began after the 2005 election…

    • tracey 2.3

      If you read the link I posted to David Fisher’s article you will have your answer.

  3. Bill 3

    I’m really not seeing what’s wrong with ministers being put “on the spot”.

    If a minister needs to buy time to “get their story straight”, then something’s not right.

    And if they’re pulled up in the lobby with some tittle tattle about what someone has said, they can easily enough turn around and say “I don’t know what you’re talking about”/ “People are entitled to an opinion”/ “I don’t do gossip. Do you have a question for me?” etc.

    And if they’re sprung by some announcement, then so fucking what? They can say they’ll get back on it, don’t have an opinion at the moment, or whatever.

    Scripts are for actors…and liars.

    • tracey 3.1

      That is unfair in my view Bill. Ministers cannot possibly know all the operational detail that happens day to day in their portfolios. That is why we have CEO’s. That is not buying time it is being briefed on what is about to happen.

      CEO’s do not need to get sign off from Ministers on all their operations, and rightly so.

      • Bill 3.1.1

        I wouldn’t expect them to know or respond to all the minutiae within their portfolios off the cuff. But they should surely have a working grasp of what’s going on without the need to scurry away and prepare lines, rehearse scripts and practice presentations, no?

        I mean, fuck, all you have to do is listen to more or less any interview with a politician in NZ, and it’s pretty clear they’re working to a script and trying not to deviate from the shit they’ve rehearsed.

        There is a very useful level of info that could be gained from a “normal” Q&A interaction.

    • Brigid 3.2

      I agree entirely. If CEOs have instigated something that is likely to embarrass the Minister something is amiss.

      • tracey 3.2.1

        It is not just about embarrassing but being seen to be competent. I think you and Bill are being very unfair on the intent of the legislation of the OIA. Of course a Minister has the right to be told that an announcement in his/her portfolio is being made and what it is about. That is all though, no opportunity to talk anyone out of it, change the announcement etc.

        I know that every employer I ever worked for would be rightly pissed off if i made announcements without telling them in advance what it involved and when.

  4. Zorb6 4

    On the money here-‘or if we get caught what can they do? This presumably is a course of action he learned in his career?’Elizabeth Warren convo with Jamie Dimon,of JPMorgan-‘
    Dimon told me what he thought it would take to get Congress to confirm a director, terms that included gutting the agency’s power to regulate banks like his. By this point I was furious. Dodd-Frank had created default provisions that would automatically go into effect if there was no confirmed director, and his bank was almost certainly not in compliance with the those rules. I told him that if that happened, “I think you guys are breaking the law.”

    Suddenly Dimon got quiet. He leaned back and slowly smiled. “So hit me with a fine. We can afford it.”

    Read more at https://www.businessinsider.com.au/jamie-dimon-said-he-could-afford-fines-2015-3#Z8GuTThMh1ufZfOi.99

    • One Anonymous Bloke 4.1

      So they got fined about $17bn, and then…

      The tone inside JPMorgan seems to have changed. JPMorgan recently acknowledged that it can’t afford to screw up anymore. Last year, higher capital requirements, legal costs, and low revenue weighed on the bank’s profits.

    • tracey 4.2

      Thanks for the link Zorb6. Back in the late 80; post crash I worked for a firm that represented Pacer Kerridge. They were trying to get His Majesty’s Theatre smashed down. They succeeded but the company folded shortly after and for the next 18 months on my way to work I passed the concrete lot with a hot dog stand where that magnificent theatre used to stand. meanwhile in Upper Queen St people were fighting to save “Brown’s Mill”. The building company got fed up waiting so took a wrecking ball to it and basically said “how much do you want for the fine?”. Cheaper for them to pay the small fine and get on with profit-making from the building.

      And that attitude is alive and well and being fostered this century

      http://eyeofthefish.org/chow-leaves-bad-taste/

      It’s this attitude and we saw it on display in John Key is precisely the opposite of what we need in our political leaders.

      And IF our Cabinet Ministers are not to be held to the Cabinet Manual behavioural standards we MUST have fast flowing access to OIA.

  5. Ad 5

    I agree with the intent of the post.

    But.

    Inside the public service, the team’s that deal with information requests are under immense pressure.

    They know that they are trying to be used.

    Used by commercial competitors, trying to unwind decisions, seeking grounds to j.d.

    Used by MPs, angling to kill each other.

    Used by lay litigants trying to humiliate complainants.

    And these staff have to make the daily judgements.

    • Tracey 5.1

      So you didnt bother to listen to Boshier.

      Good o.

      • Ad 5.1.1

        Yes I have listened to it.
        I got your your usual snippy and vacuous response.
        None of my points were addressed by Boshier.

        Boshier is clearly hoping that he can “sit down with Chief Executives in a room and do it all on the day”. He is confused. The vast volume of information requests aren’t highly politicized – rather they are careful internal debates with closely considered contests about the harmful consequences of release.

        There is no motivation in the public service to really improve either timeliness or openness of information, when they are not rewarded for it internally and are instead often sidelined, they are not assisted internally because assisting compilers is a total lose-lose, they are put at risk by the media themselves who have demonstrated time and again they are not to be trusted, and they are trying to sustain basic levels of integrity with the courts, Police, and corrections, which are the information guardians that most of us will ever have to deal with.

        Boshier should get his head out of the overly politicized cloud he is operating in, and get back to the basics of how this flow of information actually functions 90% of the time.

        Please re-read the policy on how to treat Authors.

        • greywarshark 5.1.1.1

          Good points 5 and 5111 Ad. So the government workers dealing with OI are squeezed. Is this how it goes – they get the job to provide the info, possibly on top of their ordinary work which if not done results in criticism, if information is given out that creates comment about their department it is their fault. It is a hiding to nowhere for them. Easiest thing, wait till the last day, look for some inoccuous sentences on each page and black the rest out. Done.

          • tracey 5.1.1.1.1

            So when Boshier explained the pressure on the public servants and the improvements that have been made (both of which Ad suggests weren’t spoken of by Boshier) you thought what?

        • tracey 5.1.1.2

          What a load of rubbish. For someone who purports so much insider knowledge of the mechanics of the political process your arrogance knows no bounds.

          “There is no motivation in the public service to really improve either timeliness or openness of information”

          And yet, improve it has, as Boshier said in the interview you listened to. You clearly heard him but were not listening because he did address what you just wrote he did not.

  6. greywarshark 6

    There is an intriguing heading for a past item at the bottom of the post re Simon Louisson:
    ‘Which National Party muppet appointed Peter Boshier to be Chief Ombudsman?’

    As Peter Boshier seemed quite decent and sane this morning I thought that I would look at Simon Louisson, and here is a recent (8/9/2017) link from him on present state of public service-objective approach of government servants.

    https://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/96522159/simon-louisson-an-inside-view-of-the-politicisation-of-the-public-service

  7. greywarshark 7

    In NZ who advises what to government and for whose benefit. I pass this item on which might be instructive.
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/2376811/Secret-advisers-unmasked

    A bit on Constitutional reform from the Liberal Party from 2008 – sounds worthy but must have got stifled.
    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO0803/S00088.htm

  8. greywarshark 8

    A 2011 summary of an informed critique of educational development in NZ after neo lib ideas and others started to divide the common beliefs of what education we needed and how.
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00220620.2011.560257?src=recsys&journalCode=cjeh20

    A search for Dr Maris O’Rourke Ministry of Education would provide some interesting background on what I consider is our educational drift. I think I remember her saying that one night she had to wait till 11pm to report to her Minister after he/she had received all the private lobbyists and interested parties whose views were being welcomed ahead of those of the experienced professional government advisor.

  9. Tracey 9

    Thanks for the links greywarshark. I will try to read them over the next day or so.

    • greywarshark 9.1

      Tracey
      I don’t know how informative you will find them, but to learners of the political scene they could offer a bit more to the background. Half the time I can’t get the right keywords to what I want, if i know what I want!

  10. Incognito 10

    Good post on an important topic!

    It is of course ridiculous that supposed embarrassment of one Minster trumps the rights of millions of people of knowing what’s going on, i.e. the public interest. These Ministers may have a fragile ego but at the same time their skin is impenetrable.

    More likely is that the party cannot be embarrassed; the OIA has become a useful tool in political warfare. Spin and propaganda rely on control of information & narrative. In a typical neoliberal mind-set it therefore makes perfect sense to control the flow of information if it means that it keeps the competition (AKA Opposition) at a disadvantage.

    In a properly functioning democracy people make informed decisions and when they are not sufficiently informed because this is being withheld from them or redacted then this perverts decision-making and the democratic process. NB Analogous comments can be made about access to information when entering to so-called free market – unfair advantage is a killer of voluntary (read: free) actions & trade.

    The obvious conclusion is that our politicians don’t want us to make informed decisions. They want to be left to do what they are elected to do, which is to rule govern us – they certainly don’t want to encourage voter or citizen participation. But even if we consent to this we first have to be fully informed or the consent process becomes a farce too.

    Ultimately though it is not really about flow of information. It is about communication, between us and our democratically-elected representatives, but even more importantly it is about communication between each other, between us, in the public-political realm. This is why any obstacle or any impediment to this communication is offensive & detrimental to our nation and an insult & threat to our humanity (cf. Hannah Arendt and The Human Condition).

    • tracey 10.1

      And it is about the quality of the people we place in charge of stuff, and how, or if, we hold them accountable for how they do or do not behave.

      As long as we keep making the law our maximum standard of behaviour, we will need more and more laws, and there will be more and more of a gap between those who can use the law and those who cannot.

      Fortunately labour campaigned on greater transparency so we will see the flow of information speed up, and the level of obstruction of the last Government disappear.

      • Incognito 10.1.1

        Fortunately labour campaigned on greater transparency so we will see the flow of information speed up, and the level of obstruction of the last Government disappear.

        I hope you’re right. However, I don’t recall Labour campaigning on transparency as such; IIRC they were more about accountability, but obviously the two are linked. Labour seem to struggle a little in finding their way on how to get these two fundamental principles of democratic government right.

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