Thursday, March 22, 2007

A good OIA experience

As people will have noticed, I make heavy use of the OIA (for a blogger), and blog frequently about the results as well as the process. Most of the latter are complaints - delays, unlawful extensions, and even a complaint to the Ombudsman. However its not all like that. Last week I sent off a request to the Minister of Justice for cabinet papers relating to the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Bill. They processed it yesterday, and immediately realised that I'd filed a similar request in October last year, and that they'd sent the response to the wrong address (so that's what happened to it). They called me immediately to apologise and explain, and today a couriered copy of the original response arrived in my mailbox; meanwhile they're looking for any new documents as requested.

This is one of the major changes the OIA has led to: a culture of openness in the public service. There are still some holdouts - Defence, Corrections and the Police all seem to share a belief that they are not accountable to the public, and that we have no right to inquire into their activities - but most government departments now fully accept that the public has a right to demand answers from them, and are quite willing to help us exercise it.


Any chance of a brief howto / does and don'ts when making OIA requests?

Posted by Anonymous : 3/23/2007 04:40:00 PM

I've been planning to do one for a while, but never got round to it.

The basic method is write a letter to the relevant minister or organisation, stating as precisely as you can what you want to know. You can go broad, but it may take time. A common request is "all documents relating to the [specific bill or proposal]", and it seems to work most of the time.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/23/2007 04:44:00 PM

I'm also interested in hearing about how much time/information different departments consider reasonable before asking for payment for their time - I'm planning to make use of OIA'd info for research this year, and want to know how broad is reasonable.

Posted by George Darroch : 3/24/2007 12:48:00 PM

George: The official guideline is if it takes more than two hours to dig up or compile the information, or is larger than 20 pages, then you can be billed. In practice, nobody bothers unless its either a) particularly onerous; or b) they want you to go away.

I've sent roughly a hundred OIA requests to central government in the past few years, and been charged for one of them. That was a request for cabinet papers relating to climate change from late 1999 to early 2001, plus some older material; apparently this predated their computerised record system, so they had to dig around in paper files. MFAT also asked me about paying once for a request on Guantanamo, but didn't follow up, and I received the information for free. Other requests have been fairly broad, but have not attracted a charge: Jim Anderton sent me a three-ring binder full of cabinet papers on forestry and climate change recently, and it didn't cost a cent.

I have less experience with local government; I've made less than ten requests, and one of them (to for information on how many people discharging into the Manawatu River were not meeting their resource consent conditions) resulted in their trying to stick me for a thousand dollars. It was a clear example of using charges to discourage requests - and in that case it worked.

If you're after more than anecdotal evidence, I recommend Steven Price's paper "The Official Information Act - A Window on Government or Curtains Drawn?" [PDF]; he did a full survey of different departments and their practices.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/24/2007 01:08:00 PM