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OIA Report - Not a game of hide and seek

Dame Beverley Wakem
Issue date:

Not a game of Hide and Seek: Report on an investigation into the practices adopted by central government agencies for the purpose of compliance with the Official Information Act 1982 was a significant wider investigation into official information practices in 2015 by Dame Bev Wakem. 

From the Executive Summary

The Official Information Act 1982 (OIA) is a key tool and safeguard in New Zealand’s democracy. The Court of Appeal stated ‘the permeating importance of the Act is such that it is entitled to be ranked as a constitutional measure’. It established the principle that official information held by government agencies shall be made available to the public unless there is good reason for withholding it.

It expressly stated that the purposes for doing this were to:

  • progressively increase the availability of official information to enable more effective participation, promote accountability and enhance respect for the law and promote the good government of New Zealand; and
  • protect official information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the preservation of personal privacy.

My Office was appointed Parliament’s independent watchdog on the operation of the OIA when it was passed on 17 December 1982, and has investigated complaints about government OIA decision-making for almost 33 years.

In recent times I have been aware of growing public concern and criticism about practices that were perceived to have developed within government agencies when dealing with requests for information. This has the potential to erode public trust and confidence in both the effective operation of the OIA and the integrity of our democratic institutions.

Over the past year, I have carried out a comprehensive review of the operation of the OIA with the assistance of 12 selected government agencies. I considered how they were led, organised and allocated their resources. I reviewed their policies, systems, practices and I considered the environment in which they operate, and how the public viewed their ability to obtain information from them. I also considered my Office’s role as Parliament’s independent watchdog on access to information decisions.

This review was conducted using my powers under section 13(3) of the Ombudsmen Act 1975 (OA). This provides an Ombudsman with the tools needed to conduct such investigations, but does have two key limitations in the context of the operation of the OIA: the Police are to all intents and purposes excluded from my OA jurisdiction, and I also cannot investigate the actions of Ministers and their officials under this Act. I can, and do, investigate the decisions of the Police and Ministers under the OIA in relation to individual requests for information.

My investigation involved reviewing over 2,500 submissions and survey responses, interviewing approximately 300 officials and requesters, conducting 37 visits to agencies and reviewing thousands of agency records (digital and paper based) and countless academic articles, speeches, research papers, reports, news articles, blogs and tweets about the OIA.

Overall, I found the OIA has caused greater openness and transparency about the plans, work and activities of the Government and increased the ability of the public to participate in the making and administration of New Zealand’s laws and policies. It has also led to greater accountability in the conduct of public affairs. The principle and purposes of the OIA remain sound. I found that most of the time, agencies were compliant in the way they operated the OIA on a daily basis. 

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