Exercise your democratic right - learn to use OIA and LGOIMA
Since 2016, UNESCO - after adopted the resolution (38 C/70) - has marked September 28, of every year as International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). IDUAI has particular relevance with the new 2030 Development Agenda, and in particular with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 16.10, which calls for ensuring public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms. Universal access is also central to the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which recognized the ambition of developing inclusive knowledge societies.
What is it?
If you are seeking information from a minister, or central or local government agency, you may be able to ask for it under either the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA) or the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 (LGOIMA).
The OIA and LGOIMA are laws in New Zealand that allow people to ask for official information held by Ministers and central and local government agencies (agencies). These laws set out how agencies should handle requests for information and give a right to anyone not happy with the result to complain to the Ombudsman.
The OIA applies to information requests made to Ministers and central government agencies.
The LGOIMA applies to local government information requests, and also sets out rights of access by the public to local government meetings.
These laws promote transparency and upholds New Zealand’s democratic values by enabling members of the public (you and me) to request information from publicly-funded bodies and most importantly, for them to answer.
Why is it important?
The main purpose of the OIA is to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order:
- to enable their more effective participation
- to promote the accountability of Ministers and officials and so enhance respect for the law and to promote good government
Principle of availability
The starting point is that, unless there is good reason for withholding information, it must be made available on request. This is called the 'principle of availability’.
Who can request an OIA?
You can request an OIA if you are:
- A New Zealand citizen or permanent resident
- A person in New Zealand
- A cooperate entity (that is, a company or an incorporated society) which is either incorporated in New Zealand or has a place of business here.
What if I am not entitled to make an OIA request?
Even if you are not entitled to make an information request under the OIA (for example, if you are overseas and not a New_Zealand citizen or resident), you can still ask an agency for information. While the agency is not required to respond in terms of the OIA, it should still deal with your request in a reasonable manner.
Who can I request official information from?
The types of agencies that come under the OIA include:
- government ministers in their official capacity;
- central government departments and organisations;
- the Police;
- crown entities;
- some state owned enterprises;
- district health boards;
- universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, wananga and other tertiary education institutions (but not private training establishments); and
- boards of trustees of state schools.
The types of agencies that come under the LGOIMA include:
• city, district and regional councils;
• council-controlled organisations;
• local and community boards;
• licensing trusts; and
• airport authorities.
How do I go about requesting an OIA?
The Office of the Ombudsman has a guide to making an official information request, including a letter template you can use for your request.
https://fyi.org.nz/ - is an online website that helps you make a request.
When can an organization withhold information?
Section 5 of the OIA law states that information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it. Some of these reasons may include:
- to prejudice the security of New Zealand or its international relations
- to prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand
How long does an organisation have to get back to me?
Government agencies are generally legally bounded to get back to you within 20 working days. They are allowed to extend this period, but must inform you why this is.
You can read more about the OIA here: http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1982/0156/latest/DLM64785.html
Making a request
Making an information request is easy in New Zealand. Simply contact the relevant agency and ask for the information you are seeking.
What should a request for official information look like?
You do not need to use legal language when requesting official information.
A request does not need to be in writing—you can make requests in person or over the telephone.
You do not have to specifically state that your request is being made under the OIA or LGOIMA.
However, it may be helpful to make your request in writing and for you to be very clear that you are making a request for official information under the OIA or LGOIMA—it helps the person receiving the request to identify it quickly and make sure it goes to the right person within the agency to be actioned.
If you do make an oral request, it may be helpful for you to make a note of what you requested, when you made your request, and who you spoke to at the agency. This may be useful for future reference.
If an agency considers that your oral request needs to be clarified in writing, it is entitled to ask you to do so. If you are unable or unwilling to do so, the agency is required to make a written record of its understanding of your request and to provide you with a copy of that written record. Your request will not be ‘received’ by the agency until you have confirmed that the agency’s understanding of your oral request is correct. This means that the maximum time limit for responding to your request will not start counting until you have provided your confirmation.
There is also no requirement for you to give the reasons why you want the information.
- by Elizabeth de Jonge
(information in this article is courtesy Office of the Ombudsman)