The Reserve Bank explains what was behind its decision to seek reimbursement for costs associated with an OIA request from a journalist

The Reserve Bank explains what was behind its decision to seek reimbursement for costs associated with an OIA request from a journalist

By Geoff Bascand*

The Reserve Bank has established a policy on when it will charge for responses to Official Information Act (OIA) requests that has drawn the ire of some critics.

Far from it being An obstacle in the path of freedom that the DomPost editorial writer claimed (18 January), the policy is a common, fair and reasonable response to a marked growth of OIA requests.

I’d like to explain our rationale, and what the policy means for requesters – most of whom will likely not be charged.

Our approach is consistent with the Official Information Act and meets the Bank’s commitment to transparency. Like all public sector organisations, the Reserve Bank must promote public accountability by providing proper access to information, unless there are good reasons to protect it. We publish most responses to OIA requests for universal access.

Official organisations – and therefore taxpayers and ratepayers – usually bear the cost of providing responses to OIA requests, but the Official Information Act recognises that some requests can be so onerous that responding lies beyond the organisation’s normal resources.

In these circumstances, the Ombudsman considers it is reasonable that requesters bear some of the associated costs. We have considered several cases when:

  • requests are for very large amounts of information;
  • a response to a request is particularly complex; or
  • a requester makes frequent requests.

Over the past five years, we have seen an increase in OIA requests of almost 300 percent, several of which have taken many days of work. Like other public sector agencies, our budget is tightly constrained.

When developing the policy, we liaised with the Office of the Ombudsman and examined other agencies’ policies.  Our policy is consistent with the Ministry of Justice Guidelines for the public sector on charging

While the policy applies to all OIA requests, in practice we will seek charges when requests are large, complex, or frequent. Importantly, it requires us to work with the requester to refine their request to a scale that is less likely to incur costs.  We expect most requests will not incur charges. 

We have taken an even-handed approach: charges are based on the volume of work required to provide information, and it applies equally to individuals, trade and industry bodies, companies, news media, bloggers, etc.

Since the policy was introduced we’ve responded to seven OIA requests and sought charges for two of them because most could be addressed without collating large amounts of information.

The particular charge that sparked recent commentary arose because providing the information requested would take an estimated 8½ hours of chargeable time (along with additional non-chargeable time). We gave the requester several opportunities to refine the request so that charges would be cut or eliminated. He chose to withdraw the request rather than refine it any further.

We can reduce or waive charges if they might cause financial hardship for the requester, or if releasing the information is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the Reserve Bank and its work.

A balanced approach with reasonable charges for large requests for information and a willingness to work with requestors seems unlikely to imperil democracy in New Zealand.  Instead it makes these easier to manage, and helps the Bank fulfil the OIA in making valuable information publically available.

Geoff Bascand is the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. This article is a re-post from a page orginially published on the RBNZ website here.

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It is appalling that we have to request information at all.
All government departments should publish all information on their web page so there is no need to even ask in the first place.
This is Big brother and anti Dempcratic.

Agree.. government and local governments should strive be more transparent and publish all information and costs. Let the public collate it if that is where the costs are.

Transparency is not only about providing information, it is providing it in a format that is understandable, has no misleading attributes, provides a full and concise picture!

Quoting a 300% increase in OIA requests without providing a number of requests is all a bit meaningless......300% of what number? 1, 10, 50??? Not very transparent..... and to think I could have been charged for requesting and being provisioned with that standard of information is very concerning!!

Facts and figures are not complex by nature.......anyone who finds complexity should be immediately alarmed that there is something not right......people create layers to hide stuff!!

I dont agree here, what should be provided is the data and information, otherwise you get a slant / opinion. After that any massaging should have a clear and sound method attached to it so an interested party can verify it was done correctly and challenge the method. As far as understandable goes if the requester is incapable of understanding that is the requester's problem and not the RB's

I agree with you here, steven. The beauty of the OIA (and its LG equivalent, LGOIMA) is that the public can request the raw information and form their own judgments.

But I also agree with notaneconomist that our public organisations could do a lot better at being transparent especially in how they present the information they willingly publish. As a strategy for avoiding too many OIA requests voluntarily publishing heaps of stuff the way you want to publish it is hard to beat.

Why don't you just submit an OIA to ask for how many OIA requests they get?

Resolving to adopt policies that in effect amount to no more than the idiomatic nonsense to 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves', is not a substitute for an incapacity to generate general price inflation. Cost accounting aside, RBNZ can longer inflate away excessive debt levels.

Straight out of the Sir Humphrey playbook. And deeply revealing about how little respect the RBNZ has for the principle of transparency in the public sector.

Let's start from the top. When the Official Information Act was passed in 1982 it replaced the Official Secrets Act and was supposed to make a huge change to government culture. In theory government entities, by default, are supposed to operate transparently rather than secretly. In this context a formal OIA request is supposed to be the last resort not the only means by which information is winkled out of an entity. So, Mike B is 100% correct and you will find a very similar sentiment at the Office of the Ombudsman's website.

So when Bascand says that the Reserve Bank has developed a policy for when to charge for OIA requests he has already revealed the RBNZ's first error. Obviously to avoid having to field too many requests the best and simplest option is to be more transparent; to willingly publish more material as a matter of course. Obviously a central bank has to maintain some confidentiality to operate effectively but we would be more impressed if they could publish an overview of the sorts of information they will fight tooth and nail to keep confidential and then we would know that they are willing to publish or release everything else.

Let's take a look at what has caused the RBNZ grief. Firstly they are absolutely entitled to refuse sweeping "fishing trip" requests for large amounts of information so no problem with charging when "requests are for very large amounts of information".

I am not so sure about when "a response to a request is particularly complex". This sounds to me like the information is easy to lay their hands on but they don't really want to release it. Bear in mind that the OIA doesn't envisage an entitlement to have the entity in any way massage or transform the information; they simply have to hand it over in the form in which it already exists. So complexity can only mean a situation where the RBNZ doesn't really want to hand over the information but they sort of have to. So they examine each part of the documents to assess whether they can lawfully withhold or, at worst, redact the requested documents. The requester should not have to pay for the RBNZ's squirrelly instincts.

The RBNZ's problem with "a requester [who] makes frequent requests" is just plain illegal. One of the best parts of the judgement against Minister McCully and MFAT in the case taken by Prof Kelsey is the affirmation in the courts of the principle already clearly laid out by the Ombudsman that the public entity cannot make any judgement about the requester or the purpose for which they are requesting information when deciding how to respond to an OIA request. So it does not matter how often Michael Reddell requests information from the RBNZ he is entitled to have each request dealt with efficiently and correctly.

So there are times when it is reasonable to make charges and generously the RBNZ state "We can reduce or waive charges...". Bzzzt another illegal statement. Again the position of the Ombudsman is that there is no such thing as fixed fees or charges that may then be subsequently waived. A fee may be set in an individual case under certain circumstances. Fees are never waived because they are not set if there is a circumstance such as hardship or public interest.

And on "public interest" these are the words the Ombudsman actually uses: "Whether there is a public interest in the release of the requested information without a charge". There is no bar called " likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the Reserve Bank and its work".

It's sad that this carefully crafted article is living proof of why we need the OIA and how hard it is, even 34 years after its passage, to get our public institutions to take it seriously.

Don't want to scare the horses as they get close to the pet-food factory.

" is just plain illegal" it is for a court to decide what Parliament meant when it enacted a piece of legislation, so this is just your opinion. As an example the climate denier brigade uses such a law to waste researchers time, such a mis-use was never I would think envisioned by Parliament.

But that's what I said: the court has decided. So any consideration of who the requester is or what purpose they might put the information to is unlawful. The only possible exception would be OIA s9 (2)(k) "prevent the disclosure or use of official information for improper gain or improper advantage." Even then the nature of the information is likely to be more relevant than who is doing the requesting.

OIA s18(h) allows a request to be refused if it is "frivolous or vexatious or that the information requested is trivial". This is actually a high bar and any public entity would want to be very sure of its grounds before invoking that right.

I have over-cooked my critique of the RBNZ. Stop at "[t]he Reserve Bank has established a policy on when it will charge for responses to ...OIA... requests ". This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the legislation. In particular it shows the RBNZ still think that they get choices about how they hand over public information to the public.

The legislation is incredibly simple. The RBNZ must hand over any information it holds to any NZ citizen that asks. End of.

There are only two legitimate items that such a policy could contain: (1) the hourly rate that applies when charges are raised and (2) the circumstances in which they will definitely not raise charges (e.g "we will never charge if we think that less than 10 person/hours are required to respond"). In all other cases the RBNZ, like all other public entities, is required to consider each request on its merits in compliance with the legislation and not according to some policy they have generated themselves.

And here's another RBNZ release from a more innocent time; 'Governor washes his own socks.'

Takes the idea of transparency to a whole new level - as in: too much information :-)