OIA compliance and practice in Department of Corrections 2022
This report was released as part of ‘Ready or not?’, an investigation into OIA practices at 12 core agencies.
'Ready or not?' is a follow-up to 'Not a game of hide and seek', an investigation published by former Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem in 2015.
From the executive summary
This summary draws together the key findings and suggested actions from my investigation.
Leadership and Culture
Visibly supportive leadership is key to developing and maintaining a positive culture around the availability of information. Throughout my investigation I saw a number of actions and initiatives driven by senior leaders that demonstrate an evolving approach to openness and an increasing commitment to the principle and purposes of the OIA. Some of the key initiatives include:
- the development and publication of an official information policy which covers Corrections’ approach to the proactive release of information and responding to OIA requests;
- a restructure of the team that processes official information requests;
- explicit messaging to staff from senior leaders about the importance of the OIA; and
- the establishment of a practice of proactively releasing selected OIA responses.
I encourage senior leaders to continue to seek out opportunities to signal to staff their commitment to the principle and purposes of the OIA and to openness more generally.
Corrections’ OIA webpage provides reasonably comprehensive information to requesters and is prominently placed, which is a signal of the importance the agency places on this function. Throughout my investigation I identified that minor improvements could be made to further enhance the webpage, such as aligning its statement of principle more closely with the principle of availability in the OIA, and providing more information about the type of information Corrections hold. Corrections promptly affected these changes after receiving my provisional opinion, although there is a further change that may still be made to some wording around the making available of information. A range of proactively released information, including OIA performance statistics, is linked from this page.
Corrections’ strategic intentions document outlines a commitment to transparency, but it does not identify some key aspects of its practice—such as its OIA handling process and its practice of proactively releasing a wide range of information—that should be acknowledged as contributors to the transparency of its operations. I suggested that a senior manager should hold responsibility for this strategy, and for OIA compliance. Corrections has duly informed me of the senior leader who holds these responsibilities.
Action points: Leadership and culture
- Ensure ongoing messaging from senior leaders to staff about the importance of the OIA, and openness more generally.
- Consider enhancements to website content incorporating my suggestion to draw the statement of principle into closer alignment with the OIA by stating that it will make information available unless there is good reason to withhold it.
- Enhance the existing strategy for transparency by incorporating elements of practice and policy around the release of official information.
Organisation structure, staffing and capability
Corrections operates a partly centralised model of OIA handling wherein the majority of OIA requests are handled by a central OIA hub based in Corrections’ National Office, with some straightforward requests submitted by prisoners handled by frontline staff in prisons. Corrections also has a Media Team that handles straightforward information requests submitted by members of the media.
Responses from staff to my initial online survey showed that, in spite of an appetite for training on the OIA, limited training is provided to staff. Although the Ministerial Services team has taken the initiative to deliver OIA training to business units in need of it, I consider the process for assessing training needs and delivering training should be formalised. Training on the OIA should be available to all staff, including specialised training for decision-makers and other key roles in the OIA handling process, as well as regular refresher training. Since I provided Corrections with my provisional opinion, it has given me some details around a training framework for its Ministerial Services team which I consider to be a good start toward implementing regular, targeted training.
There is also a need for training on Corrections’ IM systems and record keeping practices. This is demonstrated by the results of my survey of staff which showed that more than half of respondents either received no training on IM systems and record keeping, or it was more than four years since they had received training. Corrections should put in place induction training and regular refresher training on its IM systems and record keeping practices for all staff.
Action points: Organisation structure, staffing and capability
- Ensure that OIA training is provided to:
- all staff at induction;
- specialised roles such as the Ministerial Services and Media Teams; and
- decision-makers on OIA responses, including decision makers in prisons and Community Corrections.
- Ensure that regular OIA refresher training is available to all staff at all sites.
- Develop a system for establishing training needs, which may include the analysis of OIA performance and quality assurance data.
- Ensure all staff receive training at induction on record keeping and the use of information management systems relevant to their role.
- Ensure regular refresher training on record keeping and the use of information management systems is available.
Internal policies, procedures and resources
I have concerns about Corrections’ Information Management (IM) systems and record keeping practices in respect of its ability to comply with section 17(2) of the PRA. This requires that agencies maintain records in an accessible form so as to be able to be used for subsequent reference. Responses from my survey of staff indicate that, in practice, shared systems are not always used to store information. This may lead to information being inaccessible when it needs to be retrieved, whether for the purpose of an OIA request or other operational reasons. I have also seen evidence of requests for information being declined on the basis it is ‘not centrally located’. This suggest a silo-ed approach to information storage which does not facilitate accessibility. I have made a recommendation that Corrections implement changes to its record keeping practices to ensure it complies with the PRA.
Corrections IM Policy has not been updated since 2014. It is timely to review and update the policy—particularly to consider and account for any impacts to practice resulting from the COVID-19 lockdown—and to embed document control measures to ensure regular updates to IM guidance occur.
During my investigation, Corrections sought the assistance of my Office to review and update its OIA guidance document. My specific advice has been provided to Corrections separately, although I encourage Corrections to consider whether it would be beneficial to staff for its guidance to be divided into three documents, which would allow each to be tailored to the specific needs of staff responding to OIA requests at National Office, in prisons, and in Community Corrections.
The Prison Operations Manual contains some guidance on OIA handling for staff in prisons; I identified some minor amendments to this to improve its accuracy, and Corrections has made my suggested changes.
To its credit, Corrections has recently developed and published an official information policy that outlines its approach to responding to requests for official information, and to the proactive release of information. The policy could be further enhanced by adding details such as how it considers such factors as requests for urgency on OIA requests, fixing a charge for the supply of official information, and the process for identifying opportunities for proactively releasing information. Nonetheless, I consider it is excellent practice for agencies to publish policies such as this, which describe how decisions are made on factors that impact people, as described in section 22 of the OIA. Corrections has also published its OIA guidance in accordance with the suggestion in my provisional opinion.
Implement changes to record keeping practices to ensure that information, including information held in prisons, is in an accessible form so as to be able to be used for subsequent reference in line with section 17(2) of the Public Records Act. I expect these changes to be fully implemented and the Department compliant with the Public Records Act by June 2022. Report back to me quarterly.
Action points: Internal policies, procedures and resources
- Review and update the ‘proactive release’ section of the official information policy to include Corrections’ approach to:
- the process for identifying opportunities for proactive release;
- the process for preparing for proactive release, including managing risks around personal or confidential information, commercial information and information subject to third party copyright;
- the process for considering frequency and timing of publication;
- the process for ensuring that published versions of policies are updated when those policies undergo amendments; and
- a commitment to releasing information in the most useable form.
- Review and update the ‘reactive requests’ section of the official information policy to include Corrections’ approach to:
- considering requests for urgency on OIA requests;
- checking eligibility of requesters;
- determining whether requests are trivial or vexatious; and
- charging for the supply of official information.
- Consider whether it would be more useful to have separate OIA guidance documents tailored to National Office, Community Corrections and prison staff.
- Review and update IM Policy and ensure appropriate document control measures exist, along with clear executive responsibility for the policy, to ensure regular reviews and updates occur.
- Produce guidance material (either added to IM Policy or within a separate document) to assist staff in understanding how to use information management systems to adhere to their record keeping obligations. This could include:
- an outline of the different record systems and the types of information each system holds;
- how to create, store, and retrieve records on each system; and
- document naming conventions.
The Ministerial Services team, which processes the majority of Corrections’ OIA requests, employs generally sound practices in relation to acknowledging requests, providing decisions to requesters in line with reported OIA timeliness obligations and ensuring all information within the scope of a request is considered. Internal email correspondence I saw in sample OIA files demonstrated a commitment to responding to requests thoroughly and on-time. The timeliness statistics reported bi-annually to the Public Service Commission (PSC) further demonstrates Corrections’ commitment to complying with reported OIA timeliness obligations. I note that these statistics include the official information requests handled by Corrections’ Media Team, which I consider to be good practice.
Improvements can be made to the Ministerial Team’s practice in relation to record keeping, and considerations of the public interest, where applicable.
I commend the Ministerial Services Team for its OIA handling during the lockdown. In spite of a high volume of requests and the challenges of adapting to working from home, Corrections’ reported OIA timeliness compliance remained over 98 percent during the 6-month period that included the lockdown, and respondents to my staff survey were complimentary of the assistance they received from the team during this time.
I have concerns about the Media Team’s compliance with the OIA, specifically in relation to providing requesters with the reasons for withholding information, and informing requesters of their right to seek a review of Corrections’ decision by way of a complaint to me. I have made a recommendation to ensure Corrections’ practices align with the OIA. I also made a suggestion about the content of the Media Team’s webpage to ensure it is clear that requests for information handled by that team are considered under the provisions of the OIA, which I am pleased to see that Corrections has already changed.
Corrections has taken positive steps to formalise its process around interactions with its Minister’s office on departmental OIA requests. The previous, unwritten process has been formalised through the development of written guidance which includes the distinction between ‘notification’ and ‘consultation’; the factors that would cause the agency to consider a request to be ‘of interest’ to the Minister; and other key considerations including—in response to my provisional opinion—details about the appropriate contact people in the Ministerial Service team, and the process to follow where the Ministers office wishes to raise concerns.
In my provisional opinion, I suggested Corrections review its practice in relation to its interpretation of the ‘no surprises’ principle. In certain cases this may be fulfilled without necessarily providing the proposed response to the Minister’s office in full, several days in advance of its eventual provision to the requester, which has been Corrections practice.
Corrections has amended its newly developed guidance on Ministerial interactions to reflect that, on a case-by-case basis, it will consider where its ‘no surprises’ obligation to the Minister can be fulfilled by providing proposed responses at the same time or slightly before they are sent to requesters. The guidance also reflects that it will now consider where it may be appropriate to provide the Minister’s office with the topic of the request or a summary of the response rather than the full response.
Ideally, the guidance on Ministerial interactions on departmental OIA requests should be discussed and agreed between the CE and the Minister.
Where OIA requests submitted by prisoners are deemed straightforward, they are handled by prison staff. Methods for keeping track of timeliness vary between prisons and there is no centralised oversight of the OIA process in prisons. Not only does this present a risk of OIA non-compliance, it is also a lost opportunity to collect valuable information about the type of requests submitted by prisoners. This may help to identify areas where OIA training or resources may be needed. Corrections should ensure robust measures are in place to track timeliness of OIA requests handled in prisons, and include these OIA statistics in reporting to PSC and to senior leaders.
Corrections has a robust programme of proactively releasing information which includes:
- data sets showing quarterly prison statistics and breakdowns of the prison population and community sentences and orders;
- Regulatory Impact Statements;
- the Prison Operations Manual and Custodial Practice Manual;
- selected OIA responses; and
- its newly developed official information policy.
Corrections has taken steps to ensure that information published on its website is accessible for all users. It is pleasing that its OIA guidance has been updated with instructions on how to produce PDF documents in a searchable format. As well as being searchable, visual elements in PDFs should be tagged with alternative text and published PDF documents should, ideally, be accompanied by an accessible Microsoft Word version.
Recommendation: Current practices
Amend the Media Team’s practices to ensure all responses to information requests, which contain full or partial refusal, are dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the OIA.
Action points: Current practices
- Record reasons for OIA decisions, including consideration of the public interest where applicable, for example in the cover sheet or in a file note.
- Record administrative steps behind OIA responses where necessary.
- Amend template OIA response letters to include specific consideration of the public interest, where applicable.
- Ensure full and accurate records of substantive telephone, face-to-face and other discussions in relation to OIA decision making are created and maintained.
- Consider adding details to webpage about making requests under urgency.
- Provide targeted OIA training for the Media Team to ensure their obligations under that Act are understood.
- Ensure messaging from senior leaders reinforces that requests for information handled by the media team must adhere to the OIA.
- Ensure OIA timeliness obligations are adhered to and robust methods are in place for tracking OIA requests handled in prisons.
- Include prison OIA handling statistics in regular reporting to senior leaders.
- Ensure the guidance on Ministerial interactions is discussed and agreed with the Minister’s office.
- Ensure the text of all PDF documents published and/or released in response to OIA requests are searchable and not ‘image only’; ensure visual elements are tagged with alternative text.
Performance monitoring and learning
Corrections collects and publishes a range of OIA data in addition to the timeliness statistics that all central government agencies are required to report to PSC. This includes the percentage of requests extended, and the percentage of requests declined in full or in part. Corrections’ publication of this data serves as both a strong signal of openness and an accountability measure. I note that information requests handled by Corrections’ Media Team are included in the statistics reported to PSC; information requests handled in prisons are not. I encourage Corrections to ensure that OIA handling statistics from prisons are also included in reporting to PSC, as discussed earlier under Current practices.
At the beginning of my investigation, OIA performance reporting to senior leaders was limited. I consider Corrections may have been missing the opportunity to collect and analyse a wealth of data that may have allowed it to identify, among other things, opportunities for the proactive release of information, resourcing/capacity issues, and opportunities for staff training. I am advised that a Reporting Team is being developed that will sit within the Ministerial Services Team and Corrections have provided me with an encouraging example of the enhanced reporting that will be provided to senior leaders. I look forward to seeing the benefits that Corrections may realise through analysis and reporting of more extensive OIA data.
Corrections has a robust peer review practice in place for OIA requests handled by the Ministerial Services team. It may further benefit from incorporating a quality assurance process into its practice. Distinct from peer review, a quality assurance review of selected closed files allows a view of the effectiveness of the OIA handling process from start to finish. This information can feed into decisions about practice, resourcing and training needs.
Corrections may benefit from establishing a formalised method for regularly monitoring information such as guidance and case notes produced by my Office, and other sources such as the PSC. This should also include a process for sharing relevant information with staff and updating OIA guidance, policy and procedures as appropriate.
Action points: Performance monitoring and learning
- Collect and analyse qualitative OIA data and report regularly to senior leadership.
- Include information requests handled in prisons in OIA reporting statistics including bi-annual reporting to the Public Service Commission.
- Develop and implement a quality assurance process for OIA requests.
- Formalise the process for learning from Ombudsman investigations and guidance, and reflect this in OIA guidance, policy and procedures.