OIA compliance and practice in Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade 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
The Ministry’s senior leaders value transparency and are driving a more open culture. This is reflected in the Ministry’s external messaging to the public, which includes overarching statements on its commitment to openness and transparency. The Ministry also provided examples of internal messaging to staff about the importance of the OIA in conjunction with these topics.
Although the post-lockdown staff survey results showed an increase in staff who rated the signals sent by the Chief Executive and Deputy Secretaries about the OIA as strongly or moderately pro-disclosure, I encourage the Chief Executive and senior leaders to ensure ongoing internal messaging is provided to staff about the importance of the OIA and openness more generally. This will ensure the spirit of the legislation stays front of mind for staff, and that the percentage of staff who view their senior leaders as strongly or moderately pro-disclosure will continue to grow.
The Ministry has an excellent OIA webpage. Not only is it easy to access and use, but it includes helpful information for requesters. Through the course of this investigation, I identified opportunities for the Ministry to further improve its OIA webpage by including who is eligible to make an OIA request, that OIA responses can be provided in alternate formats, that requesters should be informed if there is an intention to charge, and by adding a link to the Directory of Official Information. The Ministry promptly affected these changes after receiving my provisional opinion.
There is still an opportunity for the Ministry to expand on the description of information held (in the Directory of Official Information and on the OIA webpage), add links to internal decision making rules (as described in section 22 of the OIA), and publish details of its approach to internal decision making on OIA requests.
Action points: Leadership and culture
- Ensure ongoing messaging from senior leaders to staff about the importance of the OIA, and openness more generally
- Expand on the description of information held by the Ministry in the Directory of Official Information and on the OIA webpage
- Provide a link on the OIA webpage to the Ministry’s internal decision making rules (described in section 22 of the OIA)
- Publish details on the OIA webpage of the Ministry’s approach to internal decision making on OIA requests
Organisation structure, staffing and capability
The Ministry uses a partly centralised OIA model, and OIA requests are handled by the Ministerial Services team with help from subject matter experts. Overall, the Ministry appears to have the staffing capacity and organisational capability to ensure it generally meets its OIA obligations in a timely manner.
It is commendable that OIA training is provided to all staff at induction, and specialised training is available upon request. Although the Ministry provided OIA refresher training in 2016, it would be beneficial to offer refresher training to all staff on a regular basis. There did not appear to be any recent, OIA-specific training on decision making for senior leaders. I encourage the Ministry to provide OIA decision making training regularly because it will assist in the consistent application of OIA provisions across the organisation.
It is also commendable that information management and record keeping training is provided to all staff at induction. I suggest the Ministry ensure refresher training sessions are also available on a regular basis to all staff.
Action points: Organisation structure, staffing and capability
- Ensure the OIA training programme includes regular refresher training for all staff and targeted training for decision makers
- Ensure regular refresher training is provided for information management and record keeping
Internal policies, procedures and resources
The Ministry’s OIA guidance documents are largely accurate and comprehensive. They are also clearly written and readily accessible to staff. However, I have identified some aspects which could be improved. For example, there is little to no information about who is eligible to make an OIA request; treating clarified requests as having replaced the original request and resetting the maximum statutory timeframe for responding; differentiating between consultation and notification with Ministers’ offices; consulting third parties; conducting the public interest test (and factors to consider before information is withheld); the importance of recording details of decision making; and differentiating between requests made under parts 2, 3 and 4 of the OIA. There is an opportunity for the Ministry to update its OIA guidance documents to include these topics.
Further, the Ministry should ensure both extension provisions are reflected in full, and consider revising OIA guidance to better reflect that decisions on OIA requests should be made ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’. I also encourage the Ministry to add dates to the OIA guidance documents which do not already have them, as this will serve as a reminder that periodic reviews should be undertaken.
I applaud the Ministry for having a sound Proactive Release Policy, which covers most of the aspects I consider such a policy should have. I suggest the addition of two minor details to ensure the policy aligns with best practice. One is the frequency and timing of publication, and the other is a commitment to releasing information in accessible and usable formats. The policy should then be published on the Ministry’s website.
Information management and record keeping resources are robust, but should be kept up-to-date through regular reviews. Approximately 60 percent of respondents from the initial staff survey described the information management system as ‘somewhat difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to search, find and collate information. Staff receive training on conducting searches in the information management system. However, the Ministry may wish to consider providing further training and guidance to assist staff with searches.
There also appeared to be a discrepancy in the number of staff who are aware of the Ministry’s naming standards document, and the use of metadata when entering information into the system. Staff awareness could be raised on both of these topics to ensure there is more consistency in the future.
Action points: Internal policies, procedures and resources
- Review and update OIA guidance material to include information such as:
- who is eligible to make an OIA request;
- treating clarified requests as having replaced the original request and resetting the maximum statutory timeframe for responding;
- differentiating between consultation and notification with Ministers’ offices;
- consulting third parties;
- conducting the public interest test (and factors to consider before information is withheld);
- the importance of recording details of decision making; and
- differentiating between requests made under parts 2, 3 and 4 of the OIA
- Ensure both extension provisions are reflected in full in OIA guidance, and consider revising OIA guidance documents to better reflect that decisions should be made ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’
- Add dates to OIA resources to ensure they are regularly reviewed
- Review and update the Proactive Release Policy to include information on the frequency and timing of release, as well as making information accessible
- Publish the Proactive Release Policy on the Ministry’s website
- Ensure information management and record keeping resources are regularly reviewed and up-to-date
- Consider providing further guidance and training on conducting searches of the information management system GDM
- Consider ways to raise staff awareness of the GDM Naming Standards document and metadata
My investigation found that 96.4 percent of OIA requests were processed within the 20 working day maximum statutory timeframe for the period of 1 July 2019 to 30 June 2020. During the 2020 lockdown, while overall OIA practices were maintained, timeliness was impacted due to the redeployment of subject matter experts to the Ministry’s Emergency Coordination Centre. The number of proactively released OIA responses also decreased during this time. However, I note the Ministry did proactively release a substantial amount of information, independent of OIA responses, which is excellent. The Ministry should examine what steps can be taken in the future to maintain proactive release of OIA responses during times of crisis.
Most proactively released OIA responses on the Ministry’s website are PDF documents, but these particular PDF documents are not searchable. In order to support accessibility, the Ministry should ensure the text of all proactively released OIA responses are searchable and not ‘image only’, and all visual elements are tagged with alternative text.
The Ministry has a number of good practices that it utilises when responding to OIA requests, and generally exhibits a high level of overall compliance with the requirements of the OIA. During my investigation, I identified an opportunity for the Ministry to update its OIA request acknowledgement to include the date the request was received, the information requested, and an explanation of timeframes for a decision to be made and communicated. I also identified an opportunity for the Ministry to update the OIA standard wording for transfer letters. The Ministry promptly effected these changes after receiving my provisional opinion.
I am pleased the Ministry and Ministers’ offices understand the final decision maker on departmental OIA requests is the Ministry. After receiving my provisional opinion, the Ministry provided me with the finalised copy of its OIA requests and Ministers guidance document. This written agreement was developed to clarify when, and in what circumstances, decision makers will consult with Ministers’ offices on departmental OIA requests or notify Ministers’ offices of departmental OIA responses. I am encouraged by the Ministry’s progress, but I note the distinction between the notification of, and consultation with, Ministers’ offices on departmental OIA requests and responses could be clearer.
Requests to the Media team for information which is held by the Ministry are subject to the OIA. The Ministry must ensure that all requests for information are handled in accordance with the OIA. On the occasions the Media team refused requests for information, I was concerned that requesters were not informed about their right to complain to the Ombudsman. In my opinion, I consider this practice to be contrary to section 19(b) of the OIA.
However, I have not made a formal recommendation in this instance because the Chief Executive advised me that he had directed immediate action be taken to address the issue. The Ministry advised its Media team will add template wording to ensure requesters are informed about their right to complain to the Ombudsman for all media information responses where information has been fully or partially refused, in accordance with the provisions of the OIA. In response to my provisional opinion, the Ministry also said it has scheduled OIA refresher training for the Media team, and this will be repeated annually. I have included an action point to address this.
Some of the Media team’s records relating to exchanges with requesters (including responses), and internal verbal discussions, also appeared to be missing. In my opinion, I consider this practice to be contrary to section 17(1) of the Public Records Act 2005. However, I do not consider it necessary to make a formal recommendation in this instance, in light of the Ministry’s advice that remedial steps have been taken to address this deficiency.
The Ministry advised the Knowledge Information and Analytics (KIA) team is working with the Media team to ensure full and accurate records of substantive correspondence are created and maintained, in accordance with the Public Records Act 2005. This includes the Media team recording all substantive conversations in the Ministry’s information management system in a way that readily identifies the date and requester. These actions will ensure there is a record of information scoping, administrative steps, and decision making for media information requests handled by the Media team. I have included an action point to address this.
Changes in practice should be supported by messaging from senior leaders, reinforcing that requests for information handled by the Media team must adhere to the OIA.
Action points: Current practices
- Consider how to prevent any future decreases in OIA timeliness in times of crisis
- Maintain proactive release practices for OIA responses
- Refine the OIA requests and Ministers guidance document to differentiate between notifying Ministers’ offices of departmental OIA responses, and consulting with Ministers’ offices on departmental OIA requests
- Ensure the Media team includes the right to complain to the Ombudsman in all responses when a media information request is fully or partially refused
- Provide targeted OIA training to the Media team on a regular basis, to ensure they understand their obligations under the OIA
- Ensure the Media team create and maintain full and accurate records of substantive correspondence (including telephone conversations, meetings and verbal discussions) with requesters, and any material internal discussions, to ensure there is a record of information scoping, administrative steps, and decision making for media information requests handled by the Media team
- Ensure messaging from senior leaders reinforces that requests for information handled by the Media team must adhere to the OIA
- Ensure the text of all PDF documents released are searchable and not ‘image only’, and all visual elements are tagged with alternative text
Performance monitoring and learning
I am pleased the Ministry completes a yearly audit of OIA requests (chosen at random) through an external agency. The Ministry also collects and reports on a wide variety of OIA request data, which is laudable. From this data, monthly reports are provided to the Ministry Board. Reports include the monitoring of OIA performance in terms of quantity and efficiency (with comparisons over time), as well as key themes, resourcing, capacity or capability issues, and the outcome of any Ombudsman investigations.
OIA performance could be further improved by storing certain OIA information in a way that would enable easier reporting of the data (by eliminating the need for a manual search). The Ministry also has an opportunity to present to the public a more complete picture of the volume of information requests it handles by including media information requests and research requests in the total count of its OIA timeliness statistics.
Staff involved in the OIA process circulate and learn from Ombudsman opinions and publications. However, I strongly encourage the Ministry to formalise this process through written guidance.
Action points: Performance monitoring and learning
- Consider capturing additional OIA request data in a way that allows for easy retrieval, reporting and analysis
- Include media information requests and research requests in OIA statistical reporting
- Formalise the process for learning from Ombudsman investigations and guidance, and reflect this in OIA policy and procedures