Since its introduction by the Muldoon government in 1982, the Official Information Act has been a powerful force for transparency and accountability.

The public, as well as journalists, have benefited from the release of information detailing the inner workings of central and local government. But, as a just-released Law Commission issues paper makes clear, the legislation is due for an overhaul. Updating is essential, given the manner in which the digital revolution has driven social and culture change, including a greater expectation of openness and availability of information.

Equally, the law has not been free of flaws. Some public servants have been reluctant to apply it in both letter and spirit, choosing to stall or thwart public access to documents. Almost a decade ago, the Ombudsman's alarm over this tendency sparked a call for the development of an "official information" culture that acknowledged both bureaucrats' responsibility and the public's ultimate ownership of information.

The Law Commission paper, entitled The Public's Right to Know, treads a similar path but takes a different tack. Agencies, it says, should take "all reasonable steps" to make information proactively available, taking account of factors such as the information they held and the public interest in it. This, it says, would tie in with a trend in other jurisdictions, particularly Britain and Australia, and also a number of policy frameworks in this country. Websites have, in fact, created an ideal format for the voluntary and routine release of such information, negating the need for swathes of documents.

The issue paper also tackles the vexed issue of the withholding of information. The act is based on the principle that information should be made available unless there is good reason for refusing it. Commercially sensitive material or privacy issues offers such grounds, but this has always been a subject of confusion. Usefully, the paper suggests clearer guidelines could be prepared from the body of precedent, based on case notes of the Ombudsmen, who handle appeals if government departments refuse to release information.

The Office of the Ombudsman has to some degree already taken over this guidance function. But this has come about by default, rather than design.

The issues paper notes that no body is, in fact, responsible for championing open government or acting as a watchdog of underlying open government principles. It asks whether a separate body, an Information Commission, should be charged with this role. It would operate along the same lines as, and be a counterpoint to, the Privacy Commission.

Given that some bureaucrats still do not take sufficient note of the public interest, there is a need for a champion of those seeking information. There should be no need, however, for the establishment of yet another commission, with all the cost that would entail. The Ombudsman, armed with the required resources, could quite easily step up to this role. Again by default, it has already taken on much of this, as its criticisms of bureaucratic attitudes in many of its annual reports to Parliament attest.

The Law Commission's paper has appeared at an opportune time. Technological change has wrought an information revolution. The principles enunciated almost 30 years ago are ever more relevant.

Changes in the Official Information Act are necessary to acknowledge the heightened expectations of transparency and accountability. Proactive disclosure of official information and a watchdog for open government are concepts worthy of adoption.