The Law Commission is continuing its run of reviewing significant laws (Search and Surveillance Bill, Suppression of Evidence report). This time it’s the turn of the Official Information Act 1982. Their work is at a very early stage – they’re canvassing views in an attempt to come up with an issues paper to guide further discussion.
At Tech Liberty we strongly believe that democratic government must be as open and accountable as possible. The Official Information Act is a very important piece of legislation that clearly established the idea that all government information must be available unless there are very good reasons for it not to be (privacy, defence of the country, legal privilege, etc). We think it’s a piece of legislation that we can be proud of.
There are still improvements that can be made to the Act and we hope that this review will result in them being made. There are obvious issues around timeliness of responses, overuse of grounds for refusal, and the reliance on an overworked Ombudsman’s Office to arbitrate appeals. Another key limitation is that it is necessary to know that information exists before you can ask for it.
A Change in Emphasis
We suggest that it might be time to take the Official Information Act into the digital age by changing the assumptions behind it. Let’s move from saying that information will be given out when asked for, to a system where information is made available for anyone to search over the Internet.
Obviously there will need to be procedures to ensure that data that would be withheld under the OIA will still be kept private. Most government departments are already installed document management systems to comply with the Public Records Act and these could be adapted to keep track of which documents can and cannot be automatically published.
The OIA changed the presumption that government should be done in secret, let’s take the next step and insist that government is done in public.
Participate in the Review
You can make your own suggestions by going to the site where you can get involved by:
- Participating in their online forums.
- Downloading their survey to fill out and return it by January 22nd 2010.