Story: Freedom of official information

Under the Official Secrets Act 1951 government employees had to keep secret everything that passed across their desks. But since 1982, when the Official Information Act was passed, all government information has been available to anyone who requests it unless there is a serious reason to withhold it.

Story by Nicola White
Main image: Investigative journalist Nicky Hager

Story Summary

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For much of the 20th century government employees had to be good at keeping secrets – under the Official Secrets Act 1951 they couldn’t reveal any government information.

Moving towards open government

During the 1970s people, both in New Zealand and overseas, began arguing that the information behind government plans and policies should be available to the public.

In 1978 the government set up the Committee on Official Information to consider the matter. In its reports it said that the government should make all information available to the public unless there is a very good reason not to.

Official Information Act 1982

The Official Information Act (OIA) was passed in 1982. It aimed to make information available to people so they can be more involved in government, and so people can access information about themselves held by government.

Information can be withheld if there are important reasons, such as if it could put New Zealand security at risk, or if it is private information about a person.

If someone requests information but it is withheld, they can complain to the ombudsman, an independent officer of Parliament, who will investigate the complaint.

What has the Official Information Act achieved?

The OIA has made government more open and accountable to citizens. Because politicians and government employees know that information could be made public, they will want it to be of high quality. But it also sometimes means they are cautious about what they put in writing. The media and lobby groups have been able to use official information to challenge, question or influence. With more information available, people are better able to understand the decisions and actions of government.

How to cite this page:

Nicola White, 'Freedom of official information', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/freedom-of-official-information (accessed 20 July 2018)

Story by Nicola White, published 20 Jun 2012