Changing the culture of government
There is broad agreement in New Zealand that the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA) has changed the culture of government in relation to access to information, and expectations of public participation in decision-making. Mark Prebble, former State Services Commissioner, has said, ‘My view, formed of close personal experience, is that the OIA remains effective and relevant. I believe it has been the most significant and valuable reform that has affected the public service during my career.’1
Interviewees in a research study in 2006 commented:
‘I think it’s been spectacularly successful … our system of government is far more open.’
‘It’s definitely increased accountability and transparency, no doubt about that. There is also no doubt that it has changed the way that we do things … every day there would be times when I think “Well, I’m not writing that down”.’2
Release or leak
Some users of the Official Information Act find it too restrictive. Researcher Nicky Hager discovered that most official information about New Zealand’s electronic intelligence agencies was not available under the act on the grounds that its release would cause ‘exceptionally grave’ damage to security and intelligence operations. However, he argued that ‘there was in fact no “exceptionally grave” damage or even much damage at all. Intelligence agencies … have certain legitimate areas where their activities need, at least for a time, to be secret. But the balance needs to be shifted much more in the direction of accountability.’3
New information made available
A great deal of basic information is now made publicly available as a matter of routine. Departmental websites, for example, provide a great deal of research and background documents, statistics and surveys. Another, quite different, example of what has been achieved by the OIA is the return of examination scripts to tertiary students. Before the passing of the OIA students rarely saw their marked papers. Once the precedent had been established, the system changed so that papers were sent back to students on request.
Improving the quality of decision-making
It has been suggested that the scrutiny that the act enabled has improved the quality of advice and decision-making at all levels of government. Commentators have identified this consequence both in relation to policy advice, where the advice had to be able to withstand scrutiny by interested parties, media and academics, and in relation to lower-level administrative decision-making. Any previous looseness in those systems was quickly eliminated once those affected could see and challenge the basis on which decisions were being taken.
Culture of openness
In 2011 New Zealand had, by international standards, a strong culture of openness in government. Any significant reform usually involved public consultation – often several times. That consultation was supported by the publication of a significant amount of information and advice. The submissions received, and their analysis, were also likely to be made public. Most official papers and advice were written on the assumption that they could be made public and needed to be able to withstand scrutiny.
Many commentators have also credited the OIA with playing a major part in ensuring the accountability of governments and public sector decision-makers. The level of openness, and the ability to access information about what decision-makers are doing and why, has given the media, opposition parties in Parliament, lobby groups and others, a powerful tool with which to question and challenge.