The Law Commission has been consulting on possible changes to the Official Information Act.
I’ve become a semi-regular user of the Official Information Act, using it to get background papers and reports on policy areas I am interested in. The OIA was one of the best things the Muldoon Government did.
However it doesn’t work as well as it can. A dedicated government agency can delay releasing information for up to a year. You are meant to get it with 20 working days, but agencies can transfer requests (resetting the clock), give themselves a time extension, and also refuse requests forcing you to go to the Ombudsman. They do a good job, but by the time they have investigated, and made a decision, many months can have gone by.
Very rarely an agency will lie – we saw this with the Labour Department under Labour, when the Immigration Service actually lied to the Ombudsman’s Office over the existence of a report. This is incredibly rare.
Anyway a lot of information about what the Government is considering, never comes out under the OIA – because no one asked for it. And you can not ask for information too generally – such as all reports about primary health or all memos from the Ministry of Education. You need to be quite specific.
I propose that for certain high level official information, the onus on release be reversed – that the Government automatically release the information even if not asked for. Now this could not apply to all official information, as there is too much, but it could apply to information that makes Ministerial level.
My proposal would be:
That all papers and reports considered by Cabinet and/or a Cabinet Committee be automatically placed on the Internet within six months.
The specifics would be:
- By having the cut off at reports that go to a Cabinet or Cabinet Committee, the DPMC could be made responsible for implementing it.
- By having a set time period, it gives the Government a bit of breathing space to consider reports and make decisions (such as the Budget) before publication. This would not prevent people from applying under the OIA to gain something earlier.
- Departmental and Ministerial staff would know that their reports are 100% guaranteed to become public, so would take appropriate care with said papers.
- Parts of reports could still be blacked out under the OIA, but be appeal-able to the Ombudsman.
- It would provide a unique look at the entire work programme of the Cabinet and its Committees.
- If a media organisation asks for information under the OIA, they often try and sensationalise any story based on it, as they have to show something for their effort. If the info is automatically made publicly available, then news worthiness will be the main criteria (I hope)
- It would result in more transparent and open Government