Information fault lines: accessing EQC information in Canterbury
Access to information is crucial in the aftermath of a natural disaster. It complements and strengthens the rebuild effort by involving the community in its own recovery and enabling broad participation in an otherwise impossible task. Following the Canterbury earthquakes, accessing information held by the Earthquake Commission (EQC) has been of primary significance to property owners faced with making important decisions about their homes and assets.
The Privacy Act and the Official Information Act (OIA) are powerful tools that provide individuals with rights of access to information held by the public sector. They impose mandatory standards on agencies such as EQC for access to information, including a stipulation that requests for information must be responded to within 20 working days. By early 2013, it was clear that EQC was routinely breaching this requirement to the extent that, by late May, it was advising requesters there would be a 6-7 month delay before it could respond to information requests.
We decided to undertake a joint investigation into the reasons for the situation, with a view to establishing how it might be rectified as quickly and sustainably as possible. This report takes a detailed look at the number of information requests received by EQC, how EQC responds to those requests (including how it prepares a file for release), and how it communicates with its customers more generally.
EQC has failed to comply with its OIA and the Privacy Act obligations to provide information to requesters in a timely manner. In our view, this is principally the result of:
an over-complicated and risk averse approach to responding to information requests; and
a tendency to be reactive rather than proactive in the dissemination of claim-related information.
The extent of the non-compliance has risen dramatically as the result of an abrupt increase in an already high volume of information requests – from 50-70 new requests per week in August-October 2012 to more than 160 per week in November-December 2012. While we acknowledge that the increase was sudden and unprecedented, we believe that an increase in request volume could have been anticipated, prepared for, and possibly prevented. In particular, we suggest that part of the reason for the high volume of requests is that customers were not able to obtain information about their claims through other means. If appropriately detailed information were available via the website, if call centre staff were able to provide adequate answers to more questions, and if EQC automatically sent out scopes of works to customers soon after they were completed, then the need for formal information requests would be greatly reduced.
We have made 13 specific recommendations to EQC as to how the issues we have identified should best be addressed. These include:
streamlining the processing of requests for claim file information (by implementing software fixes, and by rebalancing its approach to redactions and the peer review process);
improving the quality of information and overall service that call centre staff can provide (through the provision of increased training, guidance material and authorisation for those employees);
considering automatic provision of property reports to customers; and
improving website content.
We are pleased that EQC has already accepted all of our recommendations and is taking steps to implement them. In addition, EQC is implementing a major “business improvement initiative”, one result of which should be that, by the end of April 2014, the problem of delay in responding to requests for claim-related information should be fully resolved. We have reservations about aspects of this initiative (see paragraphs 184-192), but this should not overshadow our recognition that EQC has positively engaged with us in addressing the matters that our investigation has highlighted. In the end, it is up to EQC to consider our conclusions and recommendations, and then to make its own decisions as to the solutions that are best tailored to its business reality. We will monitor the effectiveness of the measures implemented by EQC in restoring Privacy Act and OIA compliance.