15 March 2011

This is Sunshine Week in the United States. Participation has grown over the last 7 years as agencies across that country cooperate to promote public awareness and discussion about open government, information freedom and related issues. The results of a number of surveys have been released to encourage media attention and a focus on levels of transparency in government.

Although one of President Obama’s first acts on taking office was to call for greater openness, the findings of the 2011 Knight Foundation Open Government Survey, the ForeSee E-govt Transparency Index Survey 2010, and the Sunshine in Government initiative show that many agencies are not meeting the aspirations held of Freedom of Information Act. For example, only 6 of 90 Fedral agencies surveyed are seen as having taken concrete action on the “two steps” encouraged by the White House. Many were seen as doing nothing substantive. An analysis by Associated Press showed that despite agencies receiving approximately 12% more information requests in 2010 than the year before, agencies responded to many fewer, and took longer to release information. The Sunshine in Government initiative has found that agencies show no reticence about using the many statutory provisions that can exempt them from FOIA obligations.

An apparent reluctance to release official information or to release it in a timely way, seems to be a universal characteristic of government employees, otherwise committed to lawful behaviour. In New Zealand, the Ombudsmen in their 2010 Annual Report noted that about 20% of completed investigations into non disclosure complaints were justified. State servants need to be conscious always that the good government purpose of the Official Information Act . It is ” to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order

(i) to enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and

(ii) to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials,

and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand”.

That is the essence of being “fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy” as required by the State Services Commissioner’s code of conduct.