Chapter 9: Requests and resources

What constitutes a request?

There seems to be a lack of clarity in some quarters as to what constitutes a request under the OIA (or the LGOIMA). Some persons apparently believe a request is not an OIA request unless it is in writing and specifically refers to the Act. It has been suggested that some agencies are likely to be more forthcoming in response to an informal request over the phone or in person than they are to a formal written request explicitly stated to be made under the OIA. They feel the latter takes on an adversarial aspect from the outset. One submitter said this to us:

I know when I worked as public relations practitioner in the state sector I took a formal OIA enquiry as something akin to a declaration of war and so I adhered to the rules only in such as I had to. By contrast, if a journalist just rang up and said, “I want to do a story on subject x, can you help?” the first question I would ask was “when’s your deadline?” and then I would try to help. When I did get OIA enquiries I would often say, “we can do this the hard way or you can withdraw the enquiry and I will help you get your story right now”. If the reporters agreed, as they often did, I would have them happily on their way with the information they needed on the same day.

It can work the other way too. Requesters who ring up for information are sometimes told that the oral request will not be actioned and that if they want the information they must make a formal request in writing under the Act. That probably cannot be justified under the Act as it stands, although one can see the practical sense in recording requests in writing, particularly where they are not straightforward: memory of what was said over the phone can fade fairly quickly.

We recommend that the Act provide expressly that requests may be made in any form: in hard copy, electronically, or orally; and they do not need to refer expressly to the official information legislation.

Nevertheless we think the provision should also state that if an oral request is made the agency can ask the requester to put it in writing if that is reasonably necessary to achieve clarity. If the requester declines, or is unable, to reduce his or her request to writing, the agency should record its understanding of the request, and a copy should be provided to the requester.

R48A new provision in the OIA and LGOIMA should state that:

(a)requests may be made in any form (in hard copy, electronically, or orally);

(b)requests do not need to make express reference to official information legislation;

(c)where it is reasonably necessary to clarify an oral request, agencies may ask for it to be put in writing;

(d)if the requester declines or is unable to put an oral request in writing, the agency should record its understanding of the request and provide a copy of it to the requester.