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Information czar should oversee OIA – Law Commission

An information commissioner could be on the cards as a review of official information law is tabled in parliament today.

The Official Information Act was passed in 1982 and law commissioner Professor John Burrows believes that 30 years on New Zealand is no longer seen as an international leader in openness of central and local government.

Dr Burrows says the commission’s review – The public’s right to know –  was needed in light of the act’s age.

“Over time, some problems have emerged… The most obvious one is technology. Now the great majority of information is held electronically – it’s easier to store and easier to disseminate," Law Commission president Sir Grant Hammond says. 

"With that, public expectation has increased. The more information people have, the more they want and that is quite understandable and proper.

“It’s quite arguable that the Official Information Act is the most important thing in public life since the invention of democracy itself. And that’s because it has involved a wholesale change in culture, because it requires justification for the exercise of all public authority.

"Those of us who can remember back 50 years or so, will remember the blank ‘no’ we sometimes received from government in responding to a particular request,” he says. 

The commission has made more than 100 recommendations in its review. The most notable is around the need for someone to oversee the business of official information.

“When the OIA was first passed in 1982, there was a body called the official information authority – and it lasted about five years and was wound up in 1988," Dr Burrows says.

"But it had a very useful oversight function and its job was to review the way the act’s working; make recommendations to government for its reform; recommend that agencies change their practices to conform with the act, to see how it integrated with other pieces of legislation.

"Now when that agency was wound up in 1988, it wasn’t replaced with anything. So currently the OIA has no champion.

"But we’re thinking, we’ve reached a stage now where there needs to be some sort of agency which oversees policy and development of the whole official information scene," he says.

"Other acts have got it, the privacy commissioner has overseen the whole of the privacy area; the human rights’ commissioner over human rights and advancement of policy in that area.

"But the OIA has nothing. So we’d really like to see functions created.

"An information commissioner would be 'nice' and they’ve now got those in Australia and the UK.

"This is not the best fiscal climate to be recommending that new agencies be set up, so we’re leaving it to the government, saying we think these functions ought to be created,” Dr Burrows says.

The Law Commission is also recommending a new statutory duty be placed on public agencies to take all reasonable steps to proactively release official information, with the consent of the relevant minister, even before a request for information is made.

Dr Burrows wants a clearer pricing structure and believes it is reasonable for some organisations, especially big corporates, to pay for information they require.

Sir Grant says it is now up to the government as to what happens next.

“The minister of justice (Judith Collins)has indicated to me this morning that both justice and the department of internal affairs have been asked to develop a cabinet paper responding to the recommendations that we’ve made…

"We have been asked to take part in assisting in the advancement of the recommendations we’ve had to make.”

More by Blair Cunningham

Comments and questions
9

This is directly correlated to the Christchurch report re the lack of openness in council. However the “information Czar” creates its own problems and will just become another large public service cost area with overinflated salaries.
Politicians currently just disagree to get in news print, a-la the Greens propensity to ask for a commission into this and that, if they were honest rather than just disagree and give their idea which they consider better the public would have something to judge them by. All journalists should ask, when told the policy is wrong, what would you do that is better

The biggest problem with the OIA is the complete lack of enforcement and penalties for not complying with the mandatory response time.

The police being the all-time greatest offenders.

I have many OIA requests that have just been ignored by the Police. Why? Because they can. It makes no difference to them as to whether they answer a request or ignore it then make up stories. The Office of the Ombudsman will tell you, ad nauseum, that there is nothing they can do about it. They too need performance criteria.

Alan is right, the only change needed is to make breaches of the OIA a criminal offence. That would be a strong signal from the Government that this country is serious about openness.

Why do we need another Government agency? Just beef up the Office of the Ombudsman and put some teeth into the existing legislation to make sure officials comply with the OIA.

Well, yes, but when did the Law Commission last advocate for less bureaucracy and common sense?

Oops, meant "more common sense" of course.

I agree Lindsay. But let;'s also ensure the following to remove the levels of obstruction currently in place delaying/preventing thr release of information:
- meaningful penalties for non-release within stipulated timeframes (delays are now a standard obfuscation practice)
- publication of penalties
- regular reporting of the performance of public entities re OIA

Just look back over the last twenty years. The Ombudsman is more focused on Queens Honours than helping Patel in the corner diary struggle with the bullying from one public servant or another. He/she will never rock the boat. they will never take serious action against recalcitrant public servants.

This will never be resolved until the quite legitimate concerns of the average Kiwi wrestling with arrogant beauracrats obfuscating and lying is given serious consideration. I hope NBR takes up that cause.

I agree with Mr Lindsay
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