Help with making an Official Information Act (OIA) request

The New Zealand Herald is helping to re-establish a website designed to make requesting official information as easy as possible. From the Herald’s website:

The Herald is helping relaunch – a website which helps members of the public to make Official Information Act (OIA) requests. Rowan Crawford, a software developer, set up the FYI website after a 2009 Open Government event as the first version of this tool outside of the United Kingdom. Users of the FYI website can make requests and receive replies from various government agencies directly through the website.

The rest of the Herald article is here. Apart from helping individuals with the OIA process, the website publishes all requests and answers so anyone can follow what is happening on a particular topic or with an agency or department.  From a privacy perspective, if you want your request to be personal to you and whoever has the information, this website isn’t for you.  As the FYI website says on the form used to make a request:

Everything that you enter on this page, including your name, will be displayed publicly on this website forever.

Additional information on the  FYI website and privacy is here. .

EQC Truths and the Court injunction

Media law specialist Steven Price (Media Law Journal blogger) has written an article on the decision to grant EQC an interim injunction against those having copies of the EQC spread sheet.

His commentary includes observations on areas the judge might have considered but didn’t: “But I am shocked that the court has failed to address basic aspects of the law.” This failure includes the relatively low threshold used to decide EQC had a case, absence of any consideration of the issue of public interest,  or the blogger’s rights under the Bill of Rights. These things are more articulately, delicately and knowledgably put on Steven Price’s blog here. A link to a copy of the judgement can be found in the article.

An aspect not covered in his commentary is, to my mind, a sinister aspect of the judgement. At [24] (1) of the judgement (at the end) it is ordered that the blogger file and serve an affidavit as to whether she or he “has or has had in his or her possession any information obtained directly or indirectly from EQC about identifiable individuals other than him or herself;”

The use of the words “any information” makes this a fishing expedition, designed to go beyond the current specific issue and require disclosure of material well outside the issue at hand. In this context “identifiable individuals” is not defined, and could be considered to extend beyond EQC claimants (e.g. information provided about incompetent or dishonest staff, doubtful contractors).

A useful blunt instrument for EQC and Minister Brownlee to apply. If this was judge’s intention then it has to be seen as a sinister development, if it was unintended then the judge has been careless.


CERA and OIA requests

Getting official information out of CERA presents a similar range of challenges as will be found with a number of other government agencies (not counting EQC who play harder with delay, wilful obfuscation, obstruction, and antagonism performed at Olympic levels).

Despite the occasional challenges, it is very encouraging to see that CERA now have provided information on how to request official information from them using the internet. The first is via the standard CERA info e-mail address, and the other using a form on their web site. Both of these can be found on the Contact web page here (half way down the page). You can of course use the traditional method of sending a written request.

Not many government agencies do this very simple thing, and hopefully CERA’s lead will be followed by others. One less than helpful agency that should follow this lead is the Christchurch City Council who hide their official information request details deep in their website (here), and try to make applicants limit their requests to either phoning the call centre or visits to the nearest suburban service centre (not appropriate conduct in terms of the OIA).  EQC do have an OIA web page (here), but only because the Ombudsman put a great deal of pressure on them.  When you visit their page it is all about how much they will charge you and nothing about open government or transparency.

Thanks CERA, every little bit helps.