Official Information Act a dinosaur that cannot die

When the Official Information Act was conceived, the year was 1982. The internet was still 11 years away. Mobile phones were literally the size of bricks and computers were not common. It was unique for its time with few if any other nations having such legislation purposefully written to open up official information to the public.

In 2019, though the O.I.A. is run down. An agency in 1982 might for example have to collect a significant paper file from the vaults, clear it to be taken to the offices of those who need to see it, scrutinise the file and then take it back once the officials concerned have established what they need to know. It could take days to assemble the information. In 2019 that is not the case any more. Files have been converted electronically into .PDF format or other appropriate formats, all agencies have computers so unless it is a complex request, requesting the information is something that can be done in a matter of minutes.

But somehow the operating procedures that are triggered in carrying out a O.I.A. request for information have not made it into the 21st Century. The O.I.A. is being dragged down by an operating framework that has not adjusted to the environment it is expected to work in.  It cannot meet the myriad of demands placed on it by the New Zealand public, politicians and the bureaucratic and political systems it is supposed to maintain the transparency of.

In some respects it reminds me of dinosaurs around the world in the days and months following the impact of a large meteorite off the coast of what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The entire food chain was impacted by the vast clouds of dust kicked up, the huge waves that radiated out in all directions. The herbivores, reliant on plants to survive – which were dying off en masse for lack of sunlight – were the first to go, followed by omnivores and finally carnivores.

Now if we look at the Official Information Act, we see that with the rise of social media the 1982 bureaucracy that administers the O.I.A. is simply not up to scratch. It is a potential game changing event because agencies are saying they cannot release the information fast enough or fails to release all that has been requested because of concerns of over release. Ministers and their advisors are running into problems about how, where, when they should view material. It has not gotten around the fact that with electronic files there are a variety of ways to manipulate the information and that it can be done very rapidly.

Some people have suggested that the O.I.A. be abolished – an idea that I find somewhat excessive. The general idea and intent of the Act is fine, but the implementation of it is not. A far better solution would be to overhaul the existing legislation. This needs to happen soon. The O.I.A. cannot become like the dinosaurs did – dead because they could not adjust to the inhospitable environment – but the longer Parliament takes to overhaul it, the greater the risk becomes that someone in a position of power meaning well, but out of sheer frustration, decides the Act should be torn up completely.

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