Over the past couple of months I've been running a little project aimed at learning how government agencies track OIA requests, with the ultimate goal of generating performance statistics to allow non-compliant departments and Ministers to be publicly named and shamed for their failure to obey the law. The project is almost done - most of the data is in, with just a few laggards to chase up, and I hope to post some initial results next week. But this has turned my mind to the question of what standards we should hold Ministers and Departments to in meeting their obligations under the Act.
On the one hand, the law is very clear: requests must be responded to
as soon as reasonably practicable, and in any case not later than 20 working days after the day on which the request is receivedWhich suggests a 100% performance standard. But even I think that's a little high. In a large organisation, there is an inevitable level of mistakes. Requests will be misplaced, the need for an extension forgotten, responses unable to be signed off because the Minister or Chief Executive is away. Expecting perfection from bureaucracies is a recipe for disappointment.
So, what are the alternatives? One obvious one is to hold Ministers to their own standard. Every government department has a "purchase agreement" with its Minister which includes certain performance requirements (whether those requirements are met is reported in their annual report). One of those requirements is always that 95 or 100% of Ministerial drafts - such as OIAs forwarded to departments for answers - are completed on time. Taking the lower of those gives us our standard. Its what Ministers demand of their departments, and we can demand no less from them.