New chief ombudsman promises to be a fearless operator

New Chief Ombudsman, Judge Peter Boshier.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

New Chief Ombudsman, Judge Peter Boshier.

New chief ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier plans to be a fearless operator, with every intention of using his title and its "spectre" to draw attention to unacceptable practices.

"I'm not going to resile from saying things publicly in a considered, measured way when I think that's justified. That's what I did as the principal court judge and that's what I'll bring to this job," he said.

The former principal Family Court Judge, who replaced Beverley Wakem last month, is passionate about the need for agencies to provide speedy responses to requesters seeking information under the Official Information Act, and he believed most requests for that information should not attract a charge.

"The scheme of the Act is speedy, open release of information. That's what the Act says. We encourage that by people feeling if they have a reasonable request, they won't have to pay for the information supplied. That seems to me to be fair and logical," he said.

"The problem starts to come when requests - some of which I've seen - are really, really open and huge and a requester is asking for all things that happened between two dates. Now in order to comply there could be a massive amount of work. So I think it's inevitable that the agency gets miffed and says 'we just aren't resourced to do this sort of thing. You'll have to pay some of our time'," he said.

The issue of agencies charging for supplying information is not new, and arose again last week after the Reserve Bank told a Fairfax NZ reporter it intended to charge $651 to cover the cost of collating information.

"I think the Reserve Bank's response is actually very fair. When I looked at it I couldn't fault it. As a statement of principle it was perfectly fair and it's one to which I subscribe," Judge Boshier said.

While he believed most requests should not attract a charge, some would, including those that "put out a trawling net" requiring a huge amount of research and collation in the hope something might be found.

"It's a matter of fairness and balance, I think. In the end if there is a lot of information needed to assemble on a matter of huge public interest I would discourage any great charging," he said.

The office had a staffing increase from 68 to 83 last year, but remains under intense pressure, with a massive hike in the number of complaints it gets now compared to years gone by.

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In 2014/15 the office received 12,151 complaints or other contacts. That's a 40 per cent jump on the 8808 it got in 2007/08.

Complaints concerning responses to the OIA and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act account for a little more than 10 per cent of those received, but they attract the greatest public attention.

Judge Boshier puts the increase down to two things. It's partly due to improved technology - complaints are easily made online - and partly because the office is seen as a cheaper and faster alternative to taken action through courts.

But the office is not dealing with complaints as fast as Judge Boshier wants.

"We know that we've got to deliver fairness to people quickly. We're not going to be able to do that if we give everything Rolls Royce treatment. It's impossible, you get a roadblock by doing too much with too many cases".

He uses an analogy involving a medical centre and triage.

"A quick, concerted, robust look at an issue at the outset will determine if its a matter of needing an aspirin and a lie down, or some counselling, or a little bit of help and a prescription, or do you need rapid entry into hospital because you have something drastically wrong and you need treatment straight away."

"I want to reserve the real fire power at the high level for those cases where it's very complex and very tricky."

He was aware of the contention that agencies knew that the office was so busy that they could get away with non-compliance while an issue was in the public focus, and "that is a rotten situation to be in".

"The reason I want to reorient where we put our limited resources is because if this Act is to have credibility it's got to be applied robustly and quickly. I can only do that if I re-arrange where we have our high intensity resources. Then I think we will get credibility back," he said.

"We are in too much delay with too many of our cases. We're not going to hide that fact."

Turning to parliament for more resources and money wasn't tenable, he said, "but what will be acceptable is for me to cut things off at the pass earlier without a long and expensive investigation process that's unlikely to in the end be productive."

When it comes to the OIA and LGOIMA he wanted agencies to understand this: "you have a duty to release in most cases".

"You've got to be principled about why you won't release and secondly, it's a public duty to get on and consider requests quickly. It's not acceptable to take up time and leave it until the last minute. I'm going to say that and I'm going to act on it," he said.

"All I can do, using the moral authority I have - and maybe the Judge title and spectre will help a little bit - is to make a point of praising good performance and drawing attention to what I consider is unacceptable performance. I think that is what the public expect of me. I'm going to be pretty fearless about this," he said.

"I'm not going to shy away from criticising and I don't mind who it is that's criticised, if the response to official information is sub-standard."

"I am going to be reasonably public. I will make criticisms publicly where I think the credibility of the office will be enhanced by me doing that."

It was his goal to reduce the number of OIA complaints his office received "in the hope that agencies and requesters come to a good accommodation about the supply of information".

He would encourage a climate where requesters indicated what they wanted and why, and where agencies did not obfuscate when applying the principles of the Act.

He did not want agencies reactions to be along the lines of "lets leave this until the last minute, shall we, and hope it goes away" or "there's ostensibly so much work here let's just try to find a way out" and he expected them to look "morally correctly at the principles of the Act and releasing, when it should, and not relying on risk adversity".

"If people want to retain credibility, transparency is the way to go".

"I can talk from experience. When we required the Family Court to be open and transparent and accountable, our credibility soared. If agencies want to be trusted that they have credibility and good processes, they have nothing to fear."

"The work we do is hugely important. We are a place where people can go for redress with agencies and ministers that can wield enormous power," he said.

 - Stuff

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