Monday, July 28, 2008

An interesting idea for the OIA

Open Secrets, the BBC's freedom of information blog, has a piece on What Do They Know, a UK site which facilitates requests under that country's Freedom of Information Act. Users sign up, pick a target government authority, and make their request online; WhatDoTheyKnow forwards it on, and automatically publishes the response when (if?) it arrives. It also allows people to browse responses by government authority, and communicate with other users researching in the same area. In the long term, it will also generate some performance statistics allowing the various authorities and departments to be compared.

The service is making waves in the UK bureaucracy because some officials don't like handing out information without a postal address, or if it will be shared. However, their Information Commissioner has been quite clear that a postal address is not required, and that an email address is an "address for correspondence" under the Act. Responses are also supposed to be applicant and motive blind [PDF], and they can't refuse a request simply because the information is intended for publication. Currently the service isn't seeing an enormous amount of usage, but hopefully it'll take off. And the UK will be better for it.

So, would such a service work in New Zealand? I don't see why not. There's no requirement in our OIA for a postal address or written communication, and many departments are quite happy to accept requests by email (they're also quite happy to just give you information without even having to mention the Act - an enormous cultural difference from the secretive UK). While some departments might be resistant, the culture of openness and expansive interpretation from the Ombudsmen mean there probably wouldn’t be any problems. The biggest problem would be getting people to use it. But there are definite advantages to this sort of collaboration and research tool, and I hope someone sets up an NZ version soon.