Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Charging for OIA requests

Over the past three years I've done slightly over a hundred Official Information Act requests. As a result, I've learned all sorts of things about the process, but one important thing I've learned is that despite the legal power to levy charges for processing requests, government departments almost never do. Of those hundred-plus requests, I think I've only been asked to pay three times, and I've only had to actually send a cheque once (for a fairly substantial request, which required people to delve into physical archives of 1990's cabinet papers. Possibly they had to buy a clockwork emergency mouse for the purpose). The core public service may sometimes be slack and obstructive, and may sometimes be a little free with the deletions and refusals, but at least they accept that the public have a right to know, and generally work to help us exercise it rather than errecting barriers.

The story is different with local government. I've made far fewer requests under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, but in around half of them the first response has been an aggressive demand for payment, which is always in excess of the charging guidelines set by the Ministry of Justice and contrary to the Ombudsmen's guideline [PDF] that agencies should work out what they will release, then how much (and whether) they will charge for it.

I'm not sure whether this is because local government staff are not properly trained in handling requests (how many people use the LGOI&M Act anyway?), or whether it is because the culture of openness in central government hasn't percolated down to them yet.


Have you considered producing a quick guide of "How best to sequeeze the information that they don't want you to know: Government Departments"?

Posted by Anonymous : 5/29/2007 07:36:00 PM

Personally I suspect it's simply because local governments tend far more toward corrupt fiefdoms than local government in New Zealand.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/29/2007 08:58:00 PM

Luke: I've been planning to do a series on "How to:", starting with "How to file an OIA request". But really, there's not much to it: you figure out what you want, you figure out who has it, and you write them a letter asking for it. You get an ACK in a week, and a reply in a month, which is usually complete unless you're pushing the envelope or they don't want you to know. If you have trouble (e.g. they ignore half your request), you write them a followup, or go to the Ombudsmen.

OK, so sticking the links in that would actually be extraordinarily helpful....

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/30/2007 12:02:00 AM

My local council has this on their website:


They have had to deal with at least one request under the OIA recently and I don't believe they charged anything for the information retrieval.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 05:29:00 AM

My research into the OIA fits with this. I found only 4% of requesters were confronted with charges. While that's a good thing, we should keep some perspective. First, there are still some cases where whopping charges are routinely proposed, apparently in an effort to discourage the request. It usually works. Second, the reason government depts don't usually charge is that it creates extra work for them, estimating the time, recording the time, preparing an invoice etc.

I have limited experience of local governments, but they seem worse by far than national-level organisations. It seems that the further away from core government you get, the poorer is the understanding of, and the lesser is the commitment to, official information laws.

Fighting charges: plead poverty and public interest under the Ministry of Justice guidelines. If they won't waive them, go to the Ombudsmen. Bear in mind that there's an Ombudsmen's casenote that says the charge must be mentioned within 20 working days or they can't charge at all.

If anyone is having trouble with an OIA request, you're welcome to drop me a line at steven.price@vuw.ac.nz

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 10:54:00 AM

Local government is awlful at doing the most basic thing right with providing information and collecting information.

A classic example, was I put in a fireplace into my house which I was charged $400.00 to get council permission and provide documents on the changes to the house.

I sold the house a few years later and in the LIM report kept by the council it stated there was a fireplace, but no dates or anything regarding whether it was approved or not.

Nice to see you tax dollars hard at work, isn't it.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 12:24:00 PM

anonymous: Did you do complete all the paperwork yourself and submit it to the council along with the fee and receive back the permits or rely on the installer to arrange this?

It's quite common for people to rely on the people doing the installing to get all the permits sorted and if they do not do it, which is more common than you would expect, then the owner of the fireplace should be talking to them rather than the council.

Posted by Anonymous : 5/30/2007 05:07:00 PM

Here is a prime recent example of an extremely obstructive council. (2nd para)


Also it was reported that they wanted to charge handsomely prior to any OIA work!

Posted by PM of NZ : 5/30/2007 05:50:00 PM