16 August 2011

It is a century this week since Britain enacted government confidentiality with the Official Secrets Act 1911.  The Act was reconfigured several times and replicated in a number of jurisdictions including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  In 1911 Britain and Germany were competing to outgun each other with battleships. HMS New Zealand, launched in July 2011  a gift to the Royal Navy from the people of New Zealand, was a product of the arms race at that time.

The Official Secrets Act was rushed through in a wave of anti German sentiment at the time of a gun boat incident at Agadir, a port in Morocco. Section 1 of the Act targeted spies gathering defence secrets in the shipbuilding yards. But section 2 targeted civil servants, soldiers and sailors who handled any official information. Up to 2000 separately worded criminal charges could be prosecuted under the Act. The two World Wars and the Cold War entrenched the spirit of the legislation.  Ironically though it was an incident relating to the Falklands conflict – a Victorian–like squabble over a colony – that led to an attitude change in Britain and, ultimately, to freedom of information laws.

A dramatic change in attitude to the purpose and “ownership” of government records occurred in New Zealand in 1982 with the repeal of our Official Secrets Act and the passing of the Official Information Act, intended… “ to make official information more freely available, to provide for proper access by each person to official information relating to that person, to protect official information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the preservation of personal privacy…”

However, four generations of officials, vaccinated by the Official Secrets Act, seem to have predisposed State servants to combating access to information.  There seems to be a collective mindset that has difficulty operating in the setting established by the Official Information Act,  where the purpose is to progressively make information more available. Repeated criticism by Ombudsmen of Minsters and agencies which fail to meet the disclosure standards of the Act, suggest that Governments cannot cope with transparency.  The ideal of open government is championed, but the practice is difficult to embrace.

This week the Government has taken a further step in reinvigorating the availability of information.   The Declaration on Open and Transparent Government commits agencies across the State sector to taking active measures to “release high value public data for re-use”.  Ministers believe that more open data will benefit the public and the economy.

“Improving online access to government data has many potential benefits. These include creating business opportunities and new services, increasing government accountability and improving policy development by encouraging greater external analysis and community engagement.”

Officials should now feel fully empowered to make non-personal information available. The Act expects it, Ministers are encouraging it, the State Services code of conduct requires it – imposing a responsibility “for facilitating speedy responses to information requests.”