Request for crisis group reports and working material regarding Government’s response to kidnapping

Free and frank opinions
Legislation:
Official Information Act 1982
Section 9
Legislation display text:
Official Information Act 1982, s 9(2)(g)(i)
Agency:
Government Department
Ombudsman:
Dame Beverley Wakem
Case number(s):
178451
Issue date:
Language:
English

Request for information about Government’s response to kidnapping of NZ resident in Baghdad—s 9(2)(g)(i) provides good reason to withhold crisis group reports and working material but not the final review of the hostage-taking—public interest met by disclosure of final review—final review released with redactions

A requester sought information about the New Zealand Government’s response to the kidnapping of New Zealand resident Harmeet Sooden in Baghdad in 2005. The requester complained to the Chief Ombudsman when that request was partially refused. For the reasons set out in greater detail below, the Chief Ombudsman accepted that section 9(2)(g)(i) of the OIA provided good reason to withhold:

  • crisis group reports and associated ministerial briefings; and

  • working material related to the Government’s review of the hostage-taking.

She was not convinced of the need to withhold in full the final review of the hostage-taking. That review was ‘prepared in a careful and considered fashion at time and distance from the events at issue’ and its partial disclosure would promote government accountability for its handling of crisis situations. DPMC reconsidered its decision, and disclosed the final review, with minor redactions to protect New Zealand’s international relations and ability to obtain information in confidence from other governments and international organisations (see sections 6(a) and (b) OIA).

Crisis group reports and associated ministerial briefings

The Government established an ad hoc working group known as a ‘watch group’ to help coordinate its response to the hostage taking crisis. The information at issue included the reports of the watch group, and updates to Ministers based on those reports. The Chief Ombudsman commented that the watch group system and associated ministerial briefings are an essential part of effective governmental responses to crisis situations.

Crises inevitably involve high-pressure, time-sensitive environments in which officials must collate and process information derived from a range of sources. The sources may or may not be accurate, confidential, attributed, or attributable. The information may raise diplomatic sensitivities, intelligence or security issues, or have implications for the safety of individuals.

Some of the information was protected by sections 6(a) and (b) of the OIA (international relations and information sharing). However, there was a broader need for confidentiality in this context to ensure that officials are not constrained from sharing and recording such information, and Ministers thereby derive the benefit of officials’ full, free and frank advice.

The Chief Ombudsman considered that disclosure of the Watch Group reports and associated briefings would have a chilling effect on interagency sharing and recording of confidential and sensitive information. It would introduce an undesirable degree of formality, caution and reticence, which would undermine the Government’s ability to respond effectively to hostage-taking and other crisis situations. This would clearly be detrimental to the effective conduct of public affairs, and possibly other interests warranting protection, like the safety of individuals.  

The Chief Ombudsman acknowledged the public interest in disclosure of information to promote government accountability for its handling of crisis situations, but felt this could be addressed by disclosure of the Government’s final review of its response to the hostage-taking. 

Working material relating to the review of the hostage-taking

The information at issue included a small number of emails in which individual officials gave their free and frank opinions to inform the Government’s review of its response to the hostage-taking.

The review was an important evaluative exercise designed to appraise the Government’s handling of the situation and identify areas for improvement. Individual officials would be less inclined to express their opinions in such forthright terms in similar evaluative exercises if this information was disclosed. This is an important part of making ongoing and iterative improvements to government processes.

The Chief Ombudsman acknowledged again the public interest in disclosure of information to promote accountability for the Government’s response to the hostage-taking, but did not believe that interest required disclosure of individual officials’ opinions. The public interest could be met by disclosure of the final review, with some redactions.

This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.

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