The documents are interesting in that they provide us with some data. The Reserve Bank has complained about a large increase in the number of OIAs they have been receiving, and used that as one justification for the new charging policy.
18 requests in calendar 2010
21 requests in calendar 2011 – up 17% from previous year
30 requests in calendar 2012 – up 42% from previous year
45 requests in calendar 2013 – up 50% from previous year
47 requests in calendar 2014 – up 4% from previous year
70 requests in calendar 2015 – up 49% from previous year
As they acknowledge, the Reserve Bank has been rather more active in a number of policy areas in the last few years – LVR restrictions are the most obvious example – which might have been expected to generate more requests, and more (attempted) scrutiny of the Bank.
But what is a reasonable baseline?
In their paper, the Bank staff note that the Treasury informed the Bank that they had a team for four full-time staff to handle OIA requests (and had charged only one person – an academic with a large research grant – some years ago). We don’t know how many OIA requests Treasury deals with each year (for requests to The Treasury itself, and those it handles for the Minister of Finance), but on the Treasury website there are more than 100 OIA releases in the last 12 months – and that list is described as “selected responses” and also excludes pro-actively released material (such as the post-Budget large pro-active release).
The Treasury is a larger organization than the Reserve Bank (around 420 staff to the Bank’s 260 or so), and covers a wider range of functions. On the other hand, the Reserve Bank has a large amount of delegated power in a variety of very significant areas (monetary policy and banking regulation), and with a very large balance sheet. It isn’t obvious that 70 OIA requests a year is an unreasonable number for an organization of the power, size, and importance of the Reserve Bank. Perhaps – as various people have suggested – it is just that the Reserve Bank was getting off surprisingly easily in the previous few years?
In the note to the Bank’s Senior Management Group I am listed as one of the culprits – having, at that time, apparently lodged 16 OIA requests in 2015 (the final total would have been 2 or 3 higher). Curiously, the Bank proposes in the documents a benchmark for charging in which charges would apply to people making more than a rolling average of two requests per month. Not even I managed that last year – and I haven’t lodged a request with the Bank this year to date. As the No Right Turn blog puts it:
The bank’s cutoff for when it will refuse a request for “substantial collation and research” is a mere three hours, while their definition of a “high volume requester” is someone who makes two requests a month for two months. Combined, these basically rule out any use of the OIA for serious research or investigation of the bank’s policies, whether by academics, investigative journalists, or the public. And while MPs won’t be charged, their requests will still be refused if they take more than that three hour limit. The net result: less scrutiny, and a specific incentive against regular scrutiny. Which means less accountability to the public.
I had a quick look through my email inbox to refresh my memory of last year’s requests:
- four related to issues around the Bank’s superannuation fund. I am an elected trustee of that Fund, and we have been grappling with some difficult and serious issues raised by a pensioner about events in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Governor’s alternate (Geoff Bascand) had been actively seeking to close the issues down, without further investigation (even though they have already led to the discovery, disclosure, and apology for the fact that past trustees – chaired by Don Brash, and including the current head of the New Zealand Transparency International – had broken the law). The only way to get some of the information needed was to request it from the Bank under the Official Information Act. In no case was any substantial research or collation faced by the Bank (in one case I was simply told to photocopy the pages I wanted).
- When I left the Bank I sought approval to use old discussion notes and memoranda that I had written. This was an entirely friendly approach, designed to minimize future requests by, in effect, seeking general approval to quote old papers (I even excluded from the request one paper I knew the Governor was sensitive about). Approval could have been granted, at least for older papers, with no Bank resources at all.
- I sought the release of background papers to one of the 2005 MPSs. These were 10 year old documents, nicely collated and stored. The point of the request was to establish the principle that such papers should be public, at least with a lag. The request should have involved no material costs to the Bank, and when the papers were finally released – well beyond 20 working days – there were no deletions at all.
- In two cases, I sought background papers after major changes of view by senior bank management – changes where no reasoning was provided at the time. One related to capital gains taxes, and the current one relates to immigration. Since they were current issues, (of material public interest) there should have been limited resources required to respond promptly.
- I requested background papers relating to 2012 Policy Targets Agreement. As this is the key document governing monetary policy, and no background papers had been released at the time the PTA was signed, it seemed desirable to better understand what the Minister and Governor had had in mind (especially in light of the current monetary policy stance debates).
- I requested papers relating to the extensive work programme the Reserve Bank had been doing on reforming the governance of the Reserve Bank. The Bank has refused to release anything of substance, a quite extraordinary stance for a work programme that has now (apparently) ended (and quite in contrast to the Treasury’s approach to a request on that work).
- I sought papers provided to the Bank’s Board relating to the September MPS. The Bank will have spent next to no resources on this request, since was refused completely (as I expected, but I wanted to establish the point).
- I sought minutes of the Bank’s Governing Committee for a defined period last year. The Governor has been keen to stress the role the Governing Committee plays in decisionmaking, and as is well known it is common for minutes of key policy committees in other central banks to be released. Totally refusing this request will also have taken almost no resources, since there was no sign in the response that they had considered the individual meeting minutes.
- I requested one specific paper I had written about fiscal and monetary events in 1991 – the first big test of the inflation targeting framework. This request was, of course, necessary only because the Bank had (see above) refused my general request to be able to cite my old papers.
- I requested copies of the submissions on the new investor finance restrictions. After great difficulty, and only after another media request, were some of these documents released (in total). It remains common practice elsewhere in government to publish submissions pro-actively.
- I requested copies of submissions on the regulatory stocktake. Comments as for the previous item: costs and resource pressure arise entirely from the Bank’s choice to be non-transparent.
- And I made two requests relating to the (TPP) Joint Macroeconomic Declaration, to which the Reserve Bank is a party. The second request followed when the first request was denied in full. The second request is still pending.
Reviewing that list with the benefit of hindsight they seem like exactly the sorts of requests that a central bank and financial regulator might expect in the course of a year like last year. Most would have been avoided if the Bank adopted the sort of pro-active transparency, as regards process, that is now best practice, or (in some cases) had simply explained itself. Even when material was released, it was almost always done on the last lawful day, or after an extension or two.
(Of course I would say this), but none of the requests appear vexatious or deliberately time-wasting. I have been encouraged to make other requests of the Bank – to seek information on the process they have used on each of the requests they have stalled, obstructed or refused, but have chosen not to. I’m less interested in the details of any particular request than in the general pattern of obstruction and (despite their claims) non-transparency.
The Official Information Act is about improving access to official information – an idea that the Bank appears to be rather uncomfortable with. As I’ve noted before, it may be that their charging policy is lawful, but if so there is something amiss with the law itself. Whether or not it is lawful, it is not good practice, and not consistent with the sort of image – an open and transparent institution – that the Bank regularly tells us it wants for itself.