Peter Boshier: Kiwis' right to access official information critical especially during COVID

  • 28/09/2021
Peter Boshier is New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman.
Peter Boshier is New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman. Photo credit: Newshub

Opinion: Today is International Right to Know Day. 

As New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman, it is one of the most significant dates in my calendar.

In the environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that people know how to access official information and have the confidence and the tools to do that.

Accountability at a time when the Government needs to exert extraordinary executive power is critical.

However, it concerns me that a poll I commissioned recently found only 45 per cent of people declared awareness of the Official Information Act (OIA) and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA). That number has declined from 50 per cent last year and 60 per cent the year before.

This is despite 83 per cent of respondents saying that being able to access government information is important. This alarms me but it also has a galvanising effect. 

Among my roles is resolving, investigating and reviewing complaints about decisions on requests for access to official information under the OIA and LGOIMA. I also monitor general compliance and good practice by public sector agencies in managing and responding to official information requests.

Our collective right to know promotes greater public participation in the democratic process, and has an important role in providing checks and balances on government. The Ombudsman is a crucial cog in the engine of democracy.

There have been some occasions when information hasn’t been made freely available and in a timely fashion. I have been very clear with a number of government ministers and agencies about my expectations around the provision of official information. 

An example of this is my recent opinion on the Minister for Courts’ delay in responding to an OIA request for certain briefings. You can read more about that opinion on my website. (Delay in responding to request for certain briefings | Ombudsman New Zealand)

At the same time, I acknowledge that requesters need to be reasonable and consider whether their requests fall within the parameters of the OIA and LGOIMA.

I have previously formed opinions that reflect this balance between the right to information and the right to withhold it.

One such opinion that gained much publicity was in relation to two complaints made under the OIA regarding the Prime Minister’s decision not to release certain information about the coalition negotiations in 2017. This opinion is also on my website. (Request for document related to coalition negotiations between Labour and New Zealand First | Ombudsman New Zealand)

As part of my work to increase knowledge of the OIA and LGOIMA and how to use them effectively to access information, I have met with members of the Media Freedom Committee

In discussions with the committee, which represents major media players in New Zealand, it became apparent that some journalists have little experience of these Acts and how to use them well.

This can lead to some frustration and potentially crossed wires with agencies, leading to poor outcomes for both. I hope Requesting Official Information: A Brief Guide for Media, which is available for download from my website from today [eds: 28/9/21], will be useful for agencies, journalists and all requesters of official information. (Resources and publications | Ombudsman New Zealand)

The media make up a small part of the total number of complainants to my office each year. For example, in the year to 30 June 2021, 69 per cent of the 1389 OIA complaints I received were from individuals. As a comparison, media made up only 19 per cent.

I find these numbers encouraging, not because the media contribute only a fifth of complaints to my office, but because it means that the other 81 per cent of complainants are aware of the OIA and LGOIMA and how to make a complaint if they are not satisfied with the response.

I look forward to a poll result reflecting much higher awareness of the OIA and LGOIMA in future. While I hold this office, raising awareness of the right to request information will remain one of my priorities as a government watchdog.

Peter Boshier is New Zealand’s Chief Ombudsman.