Tuesday, December 18, 2007

25 years of the OIA

Yesterday, December 17, marked another significant constitutional anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, on December 17, 1982, the Official Information Act became law.

The OIA grew out of the 1980 report of the Committee on Official Information, Towards Open Government [PDF]. Chaired by Sir Alan Danks, the committee was originally convened to consider changes to the classification system and the "purpose and application of the Official Secrets Act 1951". In the end, it recommended that it be scraped, arguing:

The case for more openness in government is compelling. It rests on democratic principles of encouraging participation in public affairs and ensuring accountability of those in office; it also derives from concern for the interests of individuals. A no less important consideration is that the government requires public understanding and support to get its policies carried out. This can come only from an informed public...
What did the Act change? This is best illustrated by looking at the previous regime. Under the Official Secrets Act, official information was considered to be the property of the government. There was a default presumption of secrecy, and disclosure without authorisation was a crime. Those seeking access had to plead their case and provide justification, and could easily be refused if the information they sought was politically sensitive or embarrassing to those in power. An example of the process in action was related by Greg Newbold in his chapter in Davidson and Tollich's Social science research in New Zealand : many paths to understanding (Longman, 1999). As a student in the 70's working on a thesis on New Zealand's prison system, he had to beg the Minister for access to the government files needed to complete his research. Unfortunately, the Minister was hostile to the project (especially given Newbold's history as a former prison inmate) and refused him permission. In the end, he went downstairs to the archives, and lied to gain access.

Nowadays, Newbold would likely have been given access as of right. The presumption of secrecy has been replaced with one of openness - the OIA's Principle of Availability declares that "information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it". What constitutes a "good reason" is laid out in sections 6 and 9 of the Act, but the grounds are limited, most must be balanced against the public interest in release, and where they do apply they will usually only result in deletions rather than documents or information being withheld in full. The net result is that practically everything is available for public scrutiny; the difficulty isn't getting the information from the government, but in knowing what to ask for...

The effect this has had on the conduct of public affairs cannot be overstated. Scarcely a week goes by without political journalists breaking a major story based on "documents obtained under the Official Information Act", and the Act has been used to access even highly sensitive information that politicians would rather keep under wraps (such as the costings of the government's student loan policy during the 2005 election campaign). Journalists and opposition politicians use the Act to perform their vital role of holding the government to account. But more than that, the OIA is also used by ordinary people in their everyday dealings with the government. In his paper The Official Information Act 1982: A Window on Government, or Curtains Drawn? [PDF], Steven Price gives examples of citizens who used the OIA to find out how to get speed limits lowered in their street after a road accident, to investigate the decisionmaking process which led to their child's expulsion from school, and to investigate mining consents, as well as to look at central government policy on a range of issues. As he points out, "this is the stuff of democracy" - citizens taking an active part in their government and their community.

However, while the OIA has had an enormous effect, it has not been a complete success. Research from Price and others has found that while the Act works well for ordinary requests, requests for politically sensitive information routinely face obstruction and frustrating delays which undermine its purpose. Often information is time-sensitive, and a delay of even a few days can make the difference between news and trivia. And it is worth remembering that while the release of the government's student loan costings during the 2005 election campaign was one of the great triumphs of the Act, it was only through the Ombudsman's intervention that they were obtained at all. So clearly there's some way still to go. That said, while not perfect, the situation is still remarkably better than it was back in the dark ages before the Act was passed, and the OIA must undoubtedly be considered a success.