Story: Freedom of official information
Page 1 – From secrets to availability
For much of the 20th century government employees had to be good at keeping secrets. All public servants were bound by the Official Secrets Act 1951 and could not publicly reveal anything that crossed their desks.
Lobbying for open government
During the 1970s that traditional approach began to be challenged, both in New Zealand and overseas. In many countries lobby groups for ‘open government’ sprang up, encouraging debate about government plans and policies, and arguing that the public should be able to see the information behind them. The main such lobby group in New Zealand was the Coalition for Open Government. It was formed in 1979 to campaign against the then government’s ‘think big’ programme of major industrial projects. The coalition later became a major force in the development of the Official Information Act 1982.
The Committee on Official Information
In 1978 the government set up the Committee on Official Information. The committee was usually called the Danks Committee after its chairman, Alan Danks. It produced two reports in 1981, recommending fundamental change. Instead of presuming that all government information should be kept secret, the committee thought that the default setting in law should be in favour of openness. Information should be able to be released unless there was a good reason to withhold it. The possible reasons for withholding information should be specified in the law, and decisions to withhold information could be reviewed by the ombudsman (an independent officer of Parliament).
How to ask for official information
A request under the Official Information Act does not have to be in writing or follow any particular form. However, a request does have to be reasonably specific so that the information can be identified, and must be for information that already exists and which can be pulled together without too much collation or research.
The organisation holding the information has to answer ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’ and no later than 20 working days after receiving the request.
The Official Information Act 1982
The committee saw the essential purpose of these reforms as being to improve communication between New Zealanders and the government. One of its reports stated:
Greater freedom of information cannot be expected to end all difference of opinion within the community, or to resolve major political issues. If applied systematically, however, with due regard for the balance between divergent interests, the changes we propose should help to narrow differences of opinion, increase the effectiveness of policies adopted, and strengthen public confidence in our system of government.1
The Official Information Act 1982, often known as the OIA, implemented most of the Danks Committee’s recommendations.
What does the Official Information Act do?
The Official Information Act 1982 includes three explicit purposes:
- to progressively increase the availability of official information to New Zealanders so they are able to more effectively participate in making and administering laws and policies, and to promote the accountability of ministers and officials
- to make it possible for individuals to access official information about themselves
- to protect official information when it is necessary for the public interest and the preservation of personal privacy.
Section 5 sets out the basic presumption of openness, or the ‘principle of availability’. This principle means information should be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it.
A technology-neutral act
One important feature of the act is that it is technology-neutral – it applies to information however it is stored or held, not just to documents. This has enabled the act to cope with the massive changes of technology and information storage since the early 1980s. Whether official information is held in an email, database or computer file, or on a piece of paper, it can be sought under the act. Even information held only in the head of a public servant is potentially accessible.