Request for identities of contractors
Privacy interest outweighed by overriding public interest in promoting accountability, transparency and public confidence and trust in the integrity of the public sector
As part of its financial review, the former Department of Labour was required to provide a select committee with information about its contracts valued at more than $10,000. This included the name of the contractor, the type and cost of the service, and hourly or daily maximum rates. The Department provided the information, but withheld the names of the contractors who were natural persons. An MP’s request for those names under the OIA was refused in order to protect the privacy of the contractors (section 9(2)(a) of the OIA). The MP complained to the Ombudsman.
The Chief Ombudsman accepted that releasing the names of the contractors would infringe their privacy because it would allow the amount paid to them to be determined. However, in her opinion, the privacy interest was outweighed by an overriding public interest in promoting accountability, transparency, and public confidence and trust in the integrity of the public sector. The Chief Ombudsman agreed with the following comments of the Auditor-General:
Impartiality and transparency in administration are essential to maintaining the integrity of the public sector. Where activities are paid for by public funds or are carried out in the public interest, Members of Parliament, the media, and the public will have high expectations. They expect people who work in the public sector to act impartially, without any possibility that they could be influenced by favouritism, or improper personal motives, or that public resources could be misused for private benefit.
As a general rule, the identities of contractors awarded public sector contracts (whether by tender or not) and the total cost of those contracts should always be disclosed in the public interest.
This case prompted the Chief Ombudsman to observe in her annual report 2008-2009:
The key principle is that there is a fundamental and overriding public interest in total transparency about who is awarded public sector contracts. Total transparency about who is awarded contracts enables the public to question any perceived conflict of interest or impropriety. While the possibility must be kept open that a case may arise where anonymity may be necessary, such a case has not yet been identified.
In this case, the Chief Ombudsman recommended disclosure of the contractors’ names.
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.
 Office of the Auditor-General. Managing conflicts of interest: Guidance for public entities. (June 2007) at 10.