Official Information Act: Watchdog announces major investigation amid public concern Government agencies using OIA to 'stifle flow of information'

Seven agencies will be under the spotlight.
Seven agencies will be under the spotlight. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The Chief Ombudsman has announced an investigation into claims Government agencies are too slow in responding to freedom of information requests. 

He's concerned delays are creating a perception - including from journalists - that the Official Information Act (OIA) "is being used as a bureaucratic tool to stifle the flow of information". 

"This is not in line with the principle of availability that is the foundation of this law," Peter Boshier said in a statement.

Boshier said he has received individual complaints about delays but wants to understand if there is a broader issue. The investigation is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

"Is it a resourcing issue, document management issue or are their sign-out processes inefficient? Alternatively, are journalists casting their nets so wide that agencies are struggling to gather the information in time?"

He's putting seven agencies under the spotlight: Health New Zealand, Pharmac, Kainga Ora, the Department of Internal Affairs, Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister Cabinet and Transpower.

He wants to hear from former and current public servants as well as requesters.

The OIA was passed into law 40 years ago this month, Boshier said, and exists to promote transparency, accountability and allow the public to participate in government decision-making.

"It requires agencies to make decisions on requests for information as soon as reasonably practicable," he said. 

The OIA requires Government agencies to make decisions on providing information within 20 working days of the request being made, unless it requires an extension.

Boshier said he is concerned some agencies are "routinely" using the 20 working day maximum timeline as a "target" and leaving providing information until the "last possible moment". 

Requests can be refused if the information asked for will soon be publicly available. Boshier said he wants to ensure plans for proactive release of information "aren't being used unreasonably to decline or delay requests". 

"Both journalists and politicians are complaining they are waiting months for the agencies to finally get around to releasing the information and then they’re quietly putting it up on their websites without informing the original requesters."

He will also review urgent requests, including the involvement of agencies' media teams, agencies' leadership and culture, their decision-making and record-keeping. 

In September, Boshier released a report titled Ready or Not?, which found there are "significant gaps" in the way agencies respond to information requests. Since then, he's met with a number of groups, including journalists, to discuss his findings. 

"They have told me agencies can be frustratingly slow at making decisions. Reporters work to tight deadlines so that the public are kept informed. They complain that when information is finally released, it belongs in the history books rather than the headlines. The public therefore has limited opportunity to participate or influence officials and decisionmakers."

He said the practice of sending department OIA responses to ministers days before the requester "not only takes time but can also lead to suspicion of political interference". This can "undermine public trust and confidence in government". 

"If there is any ministerial interference, gaming or unnecessary consultations or sign-offs taking place, especially for what could be described as high risk or sensitive requests, this needs to be stopped. The public has a right to be informed and not kept in the dark until the last minute especially in an election year."

At the release of his September report, Boshier said his research  found the core public service is increasingly transparent and agencies are taking the initiative to proactively release information to the public as part of their normal business practice.

However, he said chief executives and other senior leaders still need to make sure their agencies have the resources and systems in place to handle their OIA workloads.