4 Oct 2019

New Zealanders in the dark over official information

11:26 am on 4 October 2019

The Chief Ombudsman says too many New Zealanders were in the dark over their right to access official information.

Ombudsman Peter Boshier

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. Photo: RNZ / Phil Smith

Peter Boshier said an independent survey released yesterday on community attitudes towards freedom of information, showed that while most wanted access to official information, just over half were aware they could ask for it.

Mr Boshier said the survey of 1000 New Zealanders was carried to test whether the country was as transparent as it thought it was, and the results were disappointing.

The online survey was conducted between 27 August and 3 September, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

"Although 78 percent of people thought it was important to be able to access government information, only 60 percent actually knew that they had the right to do so, and that's very, very disappointing."

Mr Boshier said while it was still a majority, he believed it was a slim one for New Zealand.

"It suggests that a large section of our population don't know about this important democratic right.

"I think what this is telling us is that although we say, and proclaim that we are a country which is very accountable and very open, those who believe that is so, doesn't reflect we're anywhere near where we'd like to be."

Mr Boshier said it indicated that the message about access to official information was not being conveyed enough.

"The way in which that's done needs to be addressed, but it is the job of councils and government to make sure that legislation which they've got to make work is known to the public.

"You do see campaigns by councils and central government on issues that they want the public to be conscious of, but I'd like to see more leadership in the public arena, by our public leaders."

The results also showed people aged 60 and over were more likely to claim awareness (76 percent) than those under 30 years of age (39 percent).

There was also a gender gap with 69 percent of males more likely to declare awareness compared to 52 percent for females.

"Māori were even less likely to declare knowledge with only 49 percent awareness compared to Pākehā at 63 percent," Mr Boshier said.

He said another concern was the "relatively low" number of people - 13 percent of those surveyed - who had taken the step to ask for information from ministers, government departments or councils, at any time over the last three years.

More than half (58 percent) were successful in receiving the information sought, and most were satisfied with the answers.

"This shows the law can be effective if people are prepared to use it."

But 31 percent of those who requested information did not receive it.

"I think the number of people who missed out on receiving information is unacceptably high."

Mr Boshier said agencies were required by law to tell people they had the right to complain to the Ombudsman, if they were unhappy with the response to an initial request.

He believed people were put off asking for official information by the notion it was a difficult process. To address that, the Office of the Ombudsman planned to launch a new website next month.

Mr Boshier said it would make it easier for people to make online requests for official information from their smartphone.

"We've concluded that many people now obtain their information on their smartphones."

In the six months to June this year, the Ombudsman's Office received 693 complaints under the Official Information Act, which was just over 4 percent fewer than the previous six months. Most were from individuals, with the media making up 146 of those complaints.

The office received 165 complaints under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, with 136 made by individuals, nine from companies or associations, and 20 from the media.

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