Shining some light

The announcement that the Chief Ombudsman, Beverley Wakem, will investigate the policies and practices of selected government agencies in the application of the Official Information Act is overdue.

The statute was passed more than 30 years ago. Its underlying principle completely reversed the situation that had prevailed before it was enacted. Before the act's passage, official information was governed by the Official Secrets Act, where the presumption was that official information was to be kept secret unless someone had authorised its release. Under the Official Information Act, the principle of availability prevails - that official information must be released on request unless there is a sustainable good reason, as given in the act, for withholding it.

While it must be acknowledged that it has brought about a sea change in officials' attitude towards the release of much information, remnants of the old hankering to keep material under wraps still lurk. Anyone trying regularly to get information encounters it. A report by Ombudsman David McGee, which has triggered the Chief Ombudsman's wider inquiry, is a striking example.

McGee began his investigation on his own initiative after seeing a television item in which Christchurch people spoke of their difficulties obtaining information on the re-organisation of Canterbury schools. The request for information was made to the Christchurch City Council for information generated by discussions it had had with the Ministry of Education. The Ombudsman found serious shortcomings in the ministry's performance. The ministry, he found, had wrongly advised the council to state it did not hold the information when it did. The ministry had also suggested to a requester that an official information request would be dealt with more promptly if it was withdrawn and dealt with less formally.

Christchurch people can take some comfort from the fact that the city council refused to accept the ministry's suggestion that it should mislead requesters with an untruthful denial. The odd thing about the suggestion is that it was unnecessary, for the act allows requests to be transferred to other information holders. The Ombudsman concedes, perhaps charitably, that this may have been what the ministry was attempting to suggest. Nonetheless, he rightly chides the ministry for its "inappropriate" proposition, which it at no stage in exchanges with the council corrected.

On the ministry's response to a requester that some sort of informal request might get a faster reply, the Ombudsman said this showed a flaw in the ministry's processes. All requests for information, he states, have to be dealt with in terms of the Official Information Act (OIA) and the ministry should have processes to do this expeditiously.

Thirty years after the passing of the act, it should not be necessary to state this. Unfortunately, it appears that it is. It is not helped by journalists repeatedly reporting that information has been obtained "under the OIA", as if it were somehow different. There is no particular procedure for someone to make a request for official information.

Ministries should, of course, have procedures to deal with potentially sensitive information, but that should not be machinery for blocking or delaying requests. And it should also be inculcated that the default position is to release information.

The Press