Before 1983 government information was automatically kept secret unless there was good reason to release it. Often the only option for those seeking information was to ask the ombudsman to approach a department on their behalf. After a review of official information between 1978 and 1981, it was widely accepted that the public had the democratic right to information. The principle behind the Official Information Act 1982 was that information should be released unless there was good reason not to. The act came into force on 1 July 1983, and an amendment act in 1987 tightened its provisions to make departments comply more readily.
Any official information held by central and local government (including ministers, mayors and councillors) can be requested by a member of the public. Unless a good case can be made for not releasing it, it must be made available. Requests for official information must be responded to promptly – generally within 20 working days. While charges can be imposed for providing official information, these must be reasonable.
Reasons for withholding official information
An agency may refuse to provide information, or make deletions from it, only on certain grounds. These include prejudice to New Zealand’s international relations or security, the prevention, detection or investigation of crime, and the right to a fair trial.
Some information can be withheld, but only if there is no public interest that requires it to be released. Grounds for withholding may include privacy, commercial interests, confidentiality, free and frank advice and opinion, the carrying on of negotiations, and risk of harassment. Information may also be withheld if release is contrary to law, if compilation would be too onerous, if it is already or will soon be publicly available, or if it cannot be found.
A nine day wonder?
When the Official Information Act was passed, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon dismissed it as ‘a nine day wonder’.1 Later assessments were more positive. One judge commented that it ‘significantly altered the balance between the citizen and the state’.2
Complaints about provision of official information
The ombudsmen are responsible for reviewing any complaint about the provision of official information.
In any given year the majority of complaints received relate to refusals of government agencies to provide official information, or for unnecessarily long delays in doing so – referred to as a ‘delay deemed refusal’. An ombudsman decides whether the refusal to provide the information is justified. If the conclusion is that a refusal is not justified, a recommendation may be made to release the information, and this is legally binding. However, it can be vetoed by the executive council of central government (cabinet), or by a full council for local government. Cabinet has never vetoed an ombudsman’s recommendation and local authorities have done so very rarely.
Other types of complaints received include those concerned with deletions or corrections in the information provided, charges, extensions or other delays, conditions attached to the information and transfers of responsibility to different agencies.