What is official information?
Official information is information held by government agencies and local bodies and includes:
Correspondence (including emails), minutes of meetings, memos, reports, studies, cost-benefit analyses, agendas, briefings, budget bids, submissions, consultants’ reports, costings and policy papers.
Access to official government information is governed by the Official Information Act (OIA). Access to local official information is governed by the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA).
Agencies not covered by the OIA (i.e. you can’t request information from them under the Act) include:
- Parliament and its agencies (the Parliamentary Counsel Office and the Parliamentary Service);
- courts and tribunals;
- the Ombudsman; and
- the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
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Who can access official information?
- You are eligible to request official information under the Official Information Act if you are:
- a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident;
- a person in New Zealand; or
- a corporate entity (that is, a company or an incorporated society) which is either incorporated in New Zealand or has a place of business here.
Note that even if you are not entitled to make an information request under the OIA (for example, if you are overseas and not a New Zealand citizen or resident), you can still ask an agency for information. While the agency is not required to respond in terms of the OIA, it should still deal with your request in a reasonable manner.
If you request official information from any of the organisations governed by the OIA or the LGOIMA they must give you the information unless they have a good reason for withholding it. If your request is turned down and you don’t think there is a good reason, you can complain to the Ombudsman.
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How do I ask for official information?
You should make your official information request to the organisation or person you think holds the information you want.
Although it's not required, it is best to make your request in writing state that you are making the request under the Official Information Act (or the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, if appropriate). This means there is a record of your request and ensure the person receiving it will give it to the right person.
You should be as specific as possible about the information you want. You don't have to say why you are requesting the information, but doing so can help the agency identity what specific information to give you. The Office of the Ombudsman has a guide to making an official information request, including a letter template you can use for your request.
Government agencies must generally answer official information requests within 20 working days. They are allowed to extend this period, but have to tell you why and justify the extension (this is specified in the Official Information Act). If you feel the extension of time is unfair, you can complain to the Ombudsman.
If your official information request is turned down, the organisation must tell you why, provided that this will not prejudice or endanger the person or interests that they are protecting by not releasing the information.
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When would I want to ask for official information?
There are many situations in which you might request official information from a government agency. You might need the information to help resolve a concern about a decision made by the agency; you might want it to support research or advocacy work. You can see what kind of official information people have requested by browsing the FYI database.
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Is there a cost for accessing official information?
A government agency is allowed to charge for information, but the amount charged has to be reasonable. Generally there is no charge for the first hour spent processing your request, or for the first 20 pages of photocopying.
Government organisations will usually write to you to explain what, if any, costs are involved and how those costs have been calculated. They may request that the charge, or a deposit, is paid before they will release the information.
There is a set of government guidelines which describe what the Government considers to be reasonable in terms of charges for the provision of official information. If you don’t think the proposed charge is reasonable, you can ask the Ombudsmen to investigate and review the charge.
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What are some legitimate reasons a government agency can give for turning down an official information request?
Reasons agencies might legitimately refuse to release information include:
- releasing the information would breach another person’s privacy
- releasing the information could prejudice the defense or security of New Zealand
- the information will soon be publicly available
- the information does not exist or cannot be found
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How do I make a complaint about the response to my official information request?
You can complain to the Ombudsman about:
- a decision to withhold or delete information from documents released to you;
- delays or extensions to the time limits for responding to your request ;
- the amount you have been charged for the information you have been given;
- the manner in which the information has been made available to you;
- conditions which have been attached to your use of the information
If a government agency responded to your official information request and you asked them for the reason for their decision, you can also complain to the Ombudsman about the agency’s response to this.