Request for unredacted submissions on the Victoria University of Wellington name simplification proposal
Request for copies of submissions made to Victoria University on its name simplification proposal – the University did not consult appropriately with the submitters before it published the submissions – submissions published with identifying details redacted under section 9(2)(a) — the University also did not consult the submitters before it refused the request for unredacted copies of the submissions – Chief Ombudsman found that section 9(2)(a) did not apply to all of the unredacted submissions
Victoria University of Wellington invited submissions on its proposal to change its name from ‘Victoria University of Wellington’ to the ‘University of Wellington’. The University published all submissions received on its website, redacting the identifying details of submitters.
Later, a requester sought unredacted copies of the submissions published by the University. The University refused the request under section 9(2)(a) of the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA). It advised that it redacted any details that could be used to identify the author of each submission, to protect their privacy. The University explained that the redactions were made because of incidents of harassment against staff and students about the views they held in relation to the proposal.
The requester complained to the Ombudsman about the University’s decision. During the course of the investigation, the requester clarified with the Ombudsman that the submissions of those who wanted to remain confidential or anonymous were not sought.
In addition to the University’s decision to refuse the request for the unredacted copies of the submissions, the Chief Ombudsman decided to investigate whether the University acted unreasonably in its communication with submitters and arrangements for publication during the consultation process.
The Chief Ombudsman accepted the University acted in good faith. However, when the University invited submissions on the proposal, it did not advise submitters that their submissions could be published, or be subject to request under the OIA. Nor did the University advise that it may withhold identifying details or invite submitters to identify any information that they did not want disclosed.
The published submission bundle was approximately 1200 pages and did not include an index or organisation by date or number. The requester complained that it was too large to print and was not electronically searchable to narrow the scope of the information required.
On viewing the information, the Chief Ombudsman noted that some of the submitters made reference to their submissions being publicly available or disseminated to others outside the University with their identifying details intact. Additionally, it was unclear whether submitters were concerned about disclosure of their identifying details.
The level of privacy interest in the information was simply not apparent without the views of the submitters. The Chief Ombudsman suggested that the University consult with the submitters to get their views on release of their identifying details.
The Chief Ombudsman formed the opinion that:
- the University acted unreasonably during the course of its submission process by omitting to explain that submissions could be published or subject to request under the OIA.
- as a direct result of the University’s omission, it failed to implement a robust system for establishing whether it was necessary to redact information from each submission.
- the University failed to publish the submissions in a format that was accessible and usable for the general public.
As a result of the consultation, the University released the unredacted submissions of those who had no concerns with the release of their identifying details to the requester. The University also apologised to the requestor for the delays in receiving the information and agreed to develop guidance for use on public consultation process.
In light of the University’s actions, the Chief Ombudsman did not consider it necessary to form any recommendations.
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.