Thursday, January 14, 2016

An attack on our democracy

That's the only way to describe the Reserve Bank of New Zealand's new policy of charging for all OIA requests:

Journalists who make requests for official information from government agencies are used to lengthy delays and lots of blacked-out pages.

Hefty invoices, like the $651 estimate received by Fairfax business journalist Richard Meadows this week for an Official Information Act (OIA) request to the Reserve Bank, are much rarer.

Meadows was informed by the Reserve Bank that charging media for requests was now its "standard policy", rather than a one-off.

This is part of a wider problem. Back in December outgoing chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem effectively recommended that agencies make wider use of charges, and especially, that they should charge media agencies and Members of Parliament, despite the clear public interest and democratic value of their requests. And the Ministry of Justice is reportedly following along with a review of the current charging regime. The expectation is that charging is going to become a lot more common - or, to put it another way, public information is going to become a lot less available, and Ministers and public servants a lot less accountable. Good for them, but bad for our democracy.

But its not just bad for our democracy. As Jacinda Ardern points out, this is our information, and departments should be making it available to us. Instead, they'll be using charges to deter requests and keep it secret.

In anticipation of these changes, I've just OIA's every core government department seeking information for the last financial year on their total number of requests, the number of times they have demanded and been paid OIA charges, and the total amount collected. If they're going to do something like this, then we at least deserve a statistical baseline so we can measure the impact. The responses are due on 15 February, and I'll be tracking them here. Assuming, of course, that they don't try and charge me for it...