Friday, December 30, 2005



Expectations of privacy

Back in November, the government released Treasury's Briefing to the Incoming Minister, which recommended restarting the Revolution and returning to the rabid market-Darwinist policies of the 80's and 90's. I was a little curious as to who exactly had written this "ideological burp" - so I asked, submitting an OIA request for the identities of the authors, and their position in Treasury, as well as historical data on previous briefings. I got my answer back the other day, and I'm not pleased. Instead of the information I had saught, I essentially received a list of former Secretaries of the Treasury - information on the authors having been withheld under s9(2)(a) of the Act in order to

protect the privacy of natural persons, including deceased people

This is arguably valid for some of the information sought, particularly for the historical data (where I was asking not only for the author's positions at the time, but whether they were still employed by Treasury, and if so, what they were doing now; OTOH, I've had such requests answered before, most notably from Corrections). But their names? When they authored and signed off on an official government document? What the Minister of Finance seems to be claiming is that public servants have an expectation of privacy in performance of their public functions - which is simply nonsensical, and more reminiscent of the bad old days when we had an official secrets act rather than the present era of supposedly open government.

Not that any of that matters, because the Minister also claims that

Treasury does not, as a matter of course, maintain detailed records of who contributed to different parts of these briefings...

Again, this is arguably true for past briefings, but for the most recent one? Couldn't they just ask? But instead, their approach seems to be "we're not telling, and we don't know anyway". So much for "open government"...

4 comments:

But the document is approved by the Secretary (which is not the case for all docus - many are approved at lower levels) and it is the Secretary who has the final say on the advice, so it is appropriate to list them as the author.

Posted by David Farrar : 12/30/2005 06:09:00 AM

Well I wasn't too taken with the Treasury briefing to the new government either but there is a line to tread in dealing with public servants. Unlike a politician, who has made a choice to live in the public eye, if you attack a public servant in a public forum they aren't supposed to defend themselves. And while I can see a case for naming and shaming in a case of gross incompetence, corruption or malice in other cases naming names when people can't fight back seems a bit close to bullying for my taste. Attack the policy not the person.

Posted by Make Tea Not War : 12/30/2005 09:49:00 AM

Treasury were equally helpful to me when I requested (didn't use the OIA) the references to support their claims that a large body of evidence supports the idea that lower marginal tax rates increase growth.

In a resonse to me they wrote:

You ask for the references relating to mention made on page 20 to recent ‘studies that have found that taxes on personal income, company income, payroll and property damage growth, while taxes on goods and services have a more muted effect on growth’. I appreciate your interest in our briefing, which is part of Treasury’s ongoing work in this area. I can confirm that the briefing as written provides as full a summary of this analysis as is possible at this time and that we intend to publish our review of the literature once it is ready, probably as part of our working paper series.

Very helpful

As I blogged here here
how hard could it have been to dig up some references? And what were they afraid of? Surely if they were confident enough to base policy reccomendations on particular studies they would be confident that such studies ought to stand up to the srutiny of a blogger?

Posted by Terence : 12/30/2005 02:14:00 PM

Once upon a time a Very Good Friend was doing the MPP (Masters of Public Policy) course at Vic.

In an interesting tutorial, her classmates (mostly junior policy advisors) argued strenuously that the key element in their pay should be "responsibility". Policy advisors had great responsibility, and so would suffer great stress, and deserved great wads of moola as a result.

The problem with that line of argument is this:

Policy advisors appears to almost never be held accountable for the quality of their advice.

Seen any policy advisors axed from NZQA in the last year over the scholarships fiasco?

Has Min Ed dumped key advisors because demand-driven provision of sub-degree courses with limited oversight turned out to be a Really Bad Idea?

Yes, as make tea says, there's a place for anonymous advise. But there's a place for accountability too: and I see damn little of it.

Posted by Icehawk : 1/03/2006 03:16:00 PM