I OIA'd every council in NZ and all I got was this headache

Published: Tue 19 Dec 2017 12:15 PM
During my quest to find out which councils in New Zealand had specific plans put in place for the protection of vulnerable communities during Civil Defence emergencies, it was suggested to me several times that I had submitted an Official Information Act request just for fun, or on a bit of a “fishing expedition.” I can assure you that however much of a nerd I might seem, absolutely no fun was had during any part of this process.
The “fishing expedition” claim is a little more nuanced: a suggestion, from Councils that alleged it, being that I was on some kind of vague hunt for “dirt” without really knowing what I wanted. I contend that I knew exactly what I wanted, but with the fraught nature of Official Information Act transactions between journalists and public bodies being what it is, journalists feel that unless they are expansive in their request, their precision will be used as an excuse for an organisation to wriggle out of answering the actual question to which both parties know full well the journalist is looking for an answer.
Photo credit: Kasaa Creative Commons license
And so it goes. I don’t blame the councils, really; a “no surprises” mindset and training and advice that has taught public servants to see any media interaction as a “gotcha” exercise perpetrated by unscrupulous and scurrilous reporters has led to a polarised and often unproductive OIA process. I cannot rule out such reporters ever having existed in New Zealand, but in many cases, cooperation between public bodies and journalists to ensure they are reporting with the information they need would lead to much better-informed journalism that would benefit the goals of both parties.
To their credit, some councils I worked with on my recent story for New Zealand Geographic, funded by a grant from the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism, realised exactly that, and were quick to offer more information than I asked for, along with supporting interviews. As background, I was trying to find out what specific plans councils around New Zealand had drawn up, in writing, for the event of a natural disaster that specifically included vulnerable subsets of the community. I requested access to such plans whether they had been made public or not.
For the purposes of this exercise, vulnerable people might include groups such as homeless, transient, or rough-sleeping people; the elderly; children; those in social, Council, or emergency housing; people with intellectual or physical disabilities; and culturally and linguistically diverse community (non-English speakers and refugees or migrants included). Basically, I wanted to know whether councils were recognising that some people in their communities would be more vulnerable than the general population in the event of a Civil Defence emergency, and what they had done in their planning to take into account those groups specifically.
I, in turn, always planned to acknowledge in my story – and I believe I have – that catering for all sections of a population in a probably chaotic crisis situation is never going to have a perfect, guaranteed solution. Further, councils are only one part of a Civil Defence reponse and, as I discovered, many are increasingly turning the nuances of community safety over to communities themselves, recognising that communities are often better-placed to respond to their own unique vulnerabilities with specific local strengths and resources, as long as they are adequately prepared and equipped to do so.
Disclaimers aside, I really did just want to know whether councils had factored such vulnerable populations into their planning, and how, in order to paint a bit of a national picture. What I was able to conclude from the councils that did respond, is that a combination of different approaches, different social and geographical challenges, and different levels of funding and resourcing across the country has created a patchwork quilt of planning and preparedness for vulnerable groups in the event of natural disasters, which means that in some areas, marginalised people are at risk of falling through the cracks. You can read more about that here.
Some councils have publicly-available planning that caters for some or all of those vulnerable groups. Some have discussed it privately, but not publicly. Some have identified vulnerable people but have not planned specifically beyond, “Here’s their addresses in case we need to go and rescue them,” a top-down approach that is falling out of favour in New Zealand and overseas, as you can hear in this interview, because it runs the risk of vulnerable people waiting for help that never arrives, rather than being assisted by their neighbours.
A number of councils responded that they had no planning in place for any vulnerable groups specifically; while I am not publishing a roll call of each Council’s responses as some OIA requests are still in train, it seems this is something for planners nationally to address – via funding and resourcing particularly – as soon as is possible.
And some councils, of course, have not replied at all. Some tried to stick me with bills for hundreds or thousands of dollars they said it would take to answer my question. This is a disconcerting practice which of course means access to information is limited (as a freelance journalist I could not afford to foot such bills, and honestly, I think organisations know that), although in the case of the council that had, it said, “three full-time staff,” I could understand why taking time to fill OIA requests might throw the workflow out a bit. I don’t think that’s an excuse for issuing a bill to a journalist – rather, it’s an example of another way that OIA rules need streamlining and improving – but it’s a scenario that should be considered in the case of any OIA reform.
In an interesting slice of New Zealand life, a few councils responsible for particularly small or remote parts of the country responded that they personally knew everyone who lived there, and there were no homeless, migrant or refugee people locally, so there had been no planning needed for such groups. One emergency response manager told me it would be a mistake for such councils to think that meant they had no “vulnerable groups” – a single wheelchair user, elderly couple, or young family could be at extra risk in the case of a disaster – but it tickled me to think that some areas could answer such an OIA essentially off the tops of their heads.
Whether councils should be required to put plans for the vulnerable in writing, or whether they should instead be working up to shore up connections with marginalised sections of their communities ahead of a crisis – as Auckland and Wellington have, in recent years, become focused on doing – or a combination of both, is a judgement for someone with more expertise than me. I hope it is a conversation that continues among emergency response managers.
But it is important, when discussing big issues, to come to the table with the facts. Official Information Acts might feel painful and burdensome to councils, as well as triggering a suspicion that a journalist is out to “get” them, but at their best they can inform evidence-based reporting. Some of the OIA responses pointed me to initiatives I would never have known about otherwise – Southland’s response referencing the Civil Defence workshops they run for ESL students at the local polytechnic, SIT, prompted a follow-up interview with a local emergency response planner there about the region’s unique challenges, stemming from a hugely diverse geography and society, that formed a key part of my story.
As usual, where the most eagerly responding councils often had initiatives they particularly wanted to show off, I have no doubt that some of the non-responders are sitting on information that the public should know about, around gaps in our Civil Defence readiness. There’s little I can do about that; the Ombudsman is a recourse, but in some cases, that process can take years. But the information I was provided allowed me to report the mixed national picture with more confidence, and allowed me to approach the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management with greater boldness. When a Ministry spokesman said*, “I’m not sure you could therefore say this approach is new to New Zealand,” because a legislative imperative to engage communities had been in place since 2002, I was able to challenge that somewhat.
While the 2002 law does mandate councils consider and engage communities in their planning, emergency responders around New Zealand told me that (perfectly naturally and understandably) policy took time to flow into practice, and that they had only started investing deeply in community-driven planning over the past few years (in several cases, the past 18 months to two years). Some councils have not yet had the funding or staffing to invest in it at all.
Having the information from these OIAs was important because so often in journalism there’s a risk of being warned off a good story by someone acting like they just know more than you and claiming you’re wrong about a lead you’re following. Questioning that is partly down to journalistic skill, but it’s also about having the facts available to be informed.
For me, Scoop’s grant was invaluable in permitting that investigative work. Freelance journalism is not usually paid until after you have sold a story, and you’re paid per published word, not per hour invested - so everything up until the time of publication is conducted for free on your own time. Although this job is a privilege, at their worst, such investigations can feel like an extremely stressful hobby. In this case, a grant from the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism helped fund some of the research and interviewing hours on my stories, allowing me to push out the scope of an investigation that initially was only going to focus on Wellington. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Stories resulting from the grant are being published on this week, and a national picture of disaster resilience for our vulnerable communities is published in New Zealand Geographic’s January/February 2018 issue, which is out now.
*An earlier comment attributed to the Ministry has been changed to a verbatim quote of what the spokesman said, at the request of the spokesman after this article was published.

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