Last week I wrote about FixMyStreet.org.nz A place where you can inform the council and other bodies about local issues that need fixing such as rubbish, graffitti, broken paths, pot holes etc.
This week I want to introduce For Your Information – fyi.org.nz a website that lets you make requests under the Official Information Act.
What is Official Information?
Official Information is any information held by the Government, including:
- Ministers of the Crown in their official capacity;
- Government departments and organisations;
- Local authorities, territorial and regional councils and community boards;
- State-owned enterprises;
- Educational institutions, including Boards of Trustees;
- Public hospitals.
You can read more about the Official Information Act (OIA) and how to make requests at this government web page: Official Information: Your Right To Know.
What sort of questions can I ask?
Anything really – how much your MP spends on entertaining, how much the crown might make from mining, what the drinks budget for the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand might be. etc.
You can ask for:
- access to any specified official information;
- reasons for decisions made about you;
- internal policies, principles, rules or guidelines; and
- meeting agendas and minutes of public bodies, including those not open to the public.
However before you make an OIA request you should bear in mind that the information may be available already – there is a lot of stuff already published on government and other organisation websites that a well known search engine might be able to find.
A good tip when using Google is to restrict the domain of your search to specific addresses for example adding site:govt.nz searches only government websites.
How do I make a request?
The govt website says: Contact the Minister, department, organisation or local authority (Mayor, councillor or council staff ) concerned and ask for the information. Its simple just write them a letter, emails work to.
However it can be tricky finding who to make the request of, and tracking their replies. You might also be interested in finding out whether other people have already made the request and obtained the information. Your community might be interested in whether some organisations are slow at responding or good at avoiding the question.
Introducing For Your Information
The FYI website is another open source project from the MySociety team in the UK. There it is called http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ and in 2009 nearly 10% of all official information act requests went through the website. The New Zealand version is just getting started. I’ll now walk you through making a request.
I noticed in the Local Board meeting that after all the kerfuffle about having to make decisions urgently as to the chair and other roles that the next actual local board meeting was not scheduled until December. Surely I thought the board would be wanting to ‘hit the ground running’ as some members frequently said. But of course that is just the next official meeting. Before then they will be getting up to speed with training sessions, workshops, reading documents, planning and so on.
So my test question is simply to ask for a list of activities the local board is involved in prior to the December meeting.
Signing Up and Signing In.
To make a request you have to be registered on the site. To do so click on the sign up link top right:
fill in contact details and click sign up.
You will be sent a confirmation email (to deter spammers), click on the link in the confirmation email and then you can sign into the site to make your first official information request.
Finding the Authority
The next step is to choose who you want to make the request to. Click on the Authority link and you will see a very long list – alphabetically sorted, of different organisations.
These are grouped on the right hand side into categories which might make it easier.
We are looking for Waiheke Local Board. Its not in the list so I select City Councils as the category and find Auckland City Council Listed instead.
Click on the council link and then click on the button to make a new request. At this stage you could browse through existing requests to see if something similar has already been asked. In this case it looks like I’m the first.
Making the request
Now all I have to do is fill in my question:
Click on the preview button and review your posting, you can go back and make further changes if it doesn’t look right.
Note this message at the bottom of the preview:
By default the requests you make and the answers received are placed into the public forum. Thats the point to make information gathered more readily available. However if you have asked for information about yourself you might not want that. In that case follow the privacy link.
We are just about done. Click on the Send Request button and your message will be posted.
You should now be able to see the request in the list on the home page and also under the Auckland City link.
At the bottom of the request you will see the following links. You can update the status when you get a response from the council to inform everyone else of the result. Typically council organisations respond with pdf or word .doc attachments rather than emails and these can be uploaded and attached to the request.
Of course in this example I could have just used our online contact form and asked the local board members themselves. I’ve done just that and we shall see from whence the best answers arrive.
So there you have it, a straightforward way of making and tracking an Official Information Request. Of course there is nothing to stop you writing directly to the organisation involved – but the website makes it easier as it has everyone’s contact details and you can share the results of your requests with others.
The site is still in Beta test mode – there are a couple of bugs I found. For example the request I made in the example still doesn’t show up in the my Requests page. But it works this morning I received an email from Auckland City to say they had received my request and had passed it onto the democracy services group and that I should get a response in 5 days.
I’ll post the results here.
If you make an OIA request relevant to Waiheke consider using FYI and post a link in a comment here so we can all join in.
here is a link to My Request