Getting information from the government
Access to general government information
The Official Information Act 1982 (OIA) allows you to get access to information from central government departments and other public bodies, like school boards. The central principle behind this Act is that government information should be made available to members of the public unless there’s a good reason for withholding it, like a risk to someone’s safety or to national security.
There’s a similar legal scheme for getting official information from city councils and other local bodies, under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 (LGOIMA).
If you’re refused access to information after making an official information request and you don’t think this is justified, you can complain to the Ombudsman.
The difference between the Privacy Act and the Official Information Scheme
The official information Acts are useful tools for gathering information if, for example, you’re a journalist or an activist – that is, they’re for getting information that you have an interest in but that’s not about you personally. Requests for information that’s specifically about you (like your Work and Income file) are dealt with under the Privacy Act 1993, not under the official information Acts (see the previous section, “Getting access to information that’s about you: Privacy Act requests”).
This distinction won’t matter when you make the request, because you don’t need to refer to any particular Act when you do this. The information-holder also has an obligation to help you make your request in the proper way. However, the difference between the Privacy Act and the official information scheme becomes important for what you can do next if you’re refused the information. If it was information about you personally, then any complaint you make will need to be made to the Privacy Commissioner, not the Ombudsman. The grounds on which your request can be refused are also narrower under the Privacy Act than under the official information Acts.
Who can I request official information from?
You can make an official information request to:
- central government ministries and departments, like the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of Social Development, and the specific units and services within each one (like Work and Income, which is part of MSD)
- state-owned enterprises – for example, New Zealand Post and Transpower New Zealand
- other central government organisations, authorities and commissions, like the Broadcasting Standards Authority, the Commerce Commission, and the police and SIS
- statutory boards, like the Charities Registration Board
- public health authorities, including district health boards
- education institutions, including universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, and school boards of trustees
- local authorities, including city councils, district councils, regional councils and community boards (and you can also request from them information held by any private contractors that the local authority has hired).
You can’t make a request to:
- a court, or
- a Royal Commission or a commission of inquiry.
Note: The government publishes a Directory of Official Information, which lists all central government bodies alphabetically along with the types of information each one holds (see “Where to go for more support” at the end of this chapter).
Making an official information request
How do I make an official information request?
You make your request directly to the relevant government agency, either verbally or in writing. It’s usually best to put your request in writing, and you should keep a copy of your letter. If you made a verbal request, make a note of the date and the person you spoke to. An email is a good way to request official information, because it creates a dated record of your request and it’s easy to keep a copy.
You should be as specific as possible about the information you want.
You don’t have to refer to the name of any particular Act when you ask for the information – you don’t have to say for example, “I’m making this request under the Official Information Act”.
The agency must help you make the request in the proper way – if, for example, you haven’t given enough detail about the information you want or if the information you want is held by a different agency.
Note: Central government agencies usually refer to requests for official information as “OIA requests” for short.
Can I be charged for making an official information request?
Yes. The agency can charge you a reasonable fee for the staff time involved and the cost of photocopying or other materials. It can require you to pay some or all of the fee in advance.
The government has published charging guidelines for central government agencies dealing with Official Information Act requests. Under the guidelines you usually won’t be charged for the first hour of staff time on your request, or for the first 20 pages of photocopying.
The agency can, however, reduce or waive the charge completely if there’s a good reason. According to the charging guidelines, a good reason could include that you can’t afford the charge, or that you want the information for non-commercial purposes and releasing it would lead to better public understanding of the agency’s work.
You can complain to the Ombudsman if you think a charge is unreasonable.
Note: Be as specific as possible about the information you want when you ask for it. This will keep to a minimum the staff time involved in processing your request and make it less likely that you’ll be charged.
What’s the time limit for responding to my official information request?
The agency has to respond to your request as soon as reasonably practicable, and no later than 20 working days after receiving it.
However, they can extend this time limit if you’ve asked for a lot of information, or if they need to search through a lot of information or to consult with other agencies before they make a decision on your request. The extension can’t be for longer than is reasonable. The agency must tell you if they need to extend the time limit, and they must explain why.
If the agency doesn’t respond within 20 working days, or within a reasonable extension of time after that, you can complain to the Ombudsman.
When official information requests can be refused
On what grounds can an official information request be refused?
The agency can refuse your request only on one of the grounds stated in the official information Acts. These include:
- to prevent harm to New Zealand’s security, defence or international relations
- to protect someone’s safety or privacy
- to protect trade secrets or commercially sensitive information
- because the information is protected by lawyer-client privilege
- because the information is already publicly available, or soon will be
- because the agency would have to do a significant amount of research or collating of documents
- because the relevant document doesn’t exist, or because the agency hasn’t been able to find it after making reasonable efforts
- because they think you requested the information simply to waste their time.
If the agency refuses your request, they have to tell you why.
What you can do if your official information request is refused
Can I challenge a refusal to give me official information?
Yes. You can complain to the Ombudsman if your request for official information is refused, or if the agency doesn’t notify you of its decision about your request within the relevant time limit (see above, “What’s the time limit for responding to my official information request?”).
If the Ombudsman decide you should be given the information, the information-holder must do what the Ombudsman recommend.
How do I make a complaint?
You can complain to the Ombudsman by letter, email or phone, or by using their online complaint form. (For contact details, see “Complaining to the Ombudsman: The process” earlier in this chapter.)
If initially you make a verbal complaint, you must put it in writing as soon as practicable.
It won’t cost you anything to complain to the Ombudsman.
What happens after I complain to the Ombudsman?
If after investigating your complaint the Ombudsman think your request shouldn’t have been refused or that your complaint is otherwise justified, they can make a recommendation to the particular agency about what is to happen – for example, that you should be given the relevant information. The agency is legally required to follow the Ombudsman’s recommendations.