Monday, May 04, 2020

Another expansion of secrecy

Government policy is complicated and easy to get wrong. So the government has a bunch of safeguards in place to try and ensure that doesn't happen. One of these is the boring-sounding "Regulatory Impact Assessment" - effectively a quality control process to ensure a policy passes the laugh test. The requirements for this are set out in a boring Cabinet circular, but they basicly boil down to saying openly what problem you are trying to solve (and why it is a problem), considering alternatives (one of which is always "do nothing", and the other of which is always "salmonella"), and thinking about the implications. Its a very minimal set of hoops to jump through, but it ensures some minimal protection against big, obvious mistakes (unless the House then comes along and passes the wrong bill). Unfortunately, the government has just repealed it:

Some of the most expensive decisions ever made by a New Zealand government will receive no scrutiny from its economic watchdog after Cabinet suspended Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA), due to Covid-19.


[A] Cabinet minute from 23 March reveals that the Government has decided to release itself from these obligations, where they relate to the impacts of the new coronavirus.

The minute said specifically that RIA requirements would be suspended for “regulatory proposals relating directly to Covid-19, so that these proposals may proceed to Cabinet decisions without accompanying RIA at any time up until or on 31 August 2020”.

The minute said that RIAs did not “provide for” decisions made swiftly to respond to emergencies.

I understand the desire to move quickly and Get Shit Done without the penny-pinchers at Treasury screaming in their ear about how this is going to cost money which could be given away as tax cuts to highly-paid Treasury analysts. But removing any sort of basic quality control from the policy process is a recipe for mistakes. And if your policy wonk can't say quickly and clearly how doing this is better than doing nothing and also better than torturing puppies, its probably a pretty shit policy to start with.

But its also not just about removing quality control: RIAs are proactively published, and provide a lot of insight into the policy process. Their removal therefore closes a significant window on the government's action, reducing transparency over some of their most controversial decisions. Again, you can see how the politicians in power benefit from that. But its not clear how the public does. I wonder if DPMC did any analysis of that?