Most pieces of legislation warrant review and possible updating every generation. Few are as worthy of attention right now as the Official Information Act. Since its introduction in 1982, it has been a strong driver of transparency and accountability. This has prompted not only a heightened demand for information but greater attention to instances where the act's aim has been thwarted. In that context, the Law Commission review of the legislation, entitled The Public's Right to Know, could hardly be more timely. Happily, most of its recommendations also strike the right note.
Perhaps the most far-reaching suggestion is that all publicly funded agencies, institutions or government-related offices should be subject to official information requests. This would encompass the likes of courts, universities, school boards of trustees, and Parliamentary Service administrative matters. The inner workings of these would become as well known as those of central and inner government. This expanded purview rests on the concept that accountability and transparency should be part and parcel of public funding and function.
That is surely reasonable.
Means of ensuring the release of far more information underpin most of the commission's recommendations. It throws much of the responsibility for this on government agencies, saying they should be more proactive. If so, they would eliminate the need for requests from journalists and the public in the first place. The internet, of course, presents an ideal format for the voluntary and routine release of copious amounts of information.
But if some agencies are already doing this, the initial instinct of others is still to withhold information. The commission proposes, quite rightly, that the grounds for doing this need to be clarified. It points to particular confusion over two reasons for withholding information - "good government" and "commercial sensitivity". The former is clearly vague, while the latter has become a convenient catch-all. It badly needs clarification, if only because of the state's increased involvement in commercial operations.
The review suggests the clearer guidelines could be based on precedent established by the office of the Ombudsman, which handles appeals if a request for information is refused. However, the basic principle must always be that information must be made available unless there is good reason to refuse it. Occasionally, that might not have been heeded.
The commission also calls for a new oversight body, which would tackle policy advice, organise training and look after other areas not covered by the Ombudsman. This champion of the act would perform a similar role to the Privacy Commission and be a counterpoint to it. But as the review concedes, there may be little Government appetite for this, given the harsh economic climate.
In fact, the commission's objectives could be achieved far more cheaply by resourcing the Ombudsman to undertake this role. By default, it has already been doing that in its annual reports to Parliament. These have included statements of alarm over some public servants' reluctance to apply the act in letter and spirit, and calls for the development of an "official information" culture that acknowledges both bureaucrats' responsibility and the public's ultimate ownership of information.
Few things are as important in a thriving democracy as freedom of information. In three decades, the Official Information Act has played an important part in creating a more open society. It has become even more relevant as time has passed. But it is not without flaws and needs updating to keep pace with fast-moving digital change. The Law Commission has done a good job in pointing the way forward.