Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Ministry of health's transparency problem again

RNZ has an interesting piece this morning about the Ministry of Health's efforts to hide the truth about its misleading and nonsensical vaccine rollout graph, which showed second doses being given before first doses. The "graph" was in fact marketing bullshit, and many Ministry of Health staff were uncomfortable with it. But rather than just admit that when faced with the inevitable OIA requests, the Ministry staff at the Ministry tried to cover it up:

Emails show one official, faced with six different reporters asking for the data behind the graph under the Official Information Act, wanted to claim the figures were commercially sensitive.

"The data doesn't match that illustration as that illustration was a smoothed and high level visual of our plan," he wrote.

"Can we please go with the approach that the picture is an illustration at a high level and the underlying data is subject to commercial sensitive information as an approach?"

But a staff member from the Director-General of Health's office knocked back the idea.


The ministry eventually responded to journalists saying there was no specific data that informed the graph and declined the Official Information Act requests. Forecast data was released, but it didn't match what was in the illustration, or split out forecast first and second doses.

In other words, the graph was a lie. And in a situation where public trust is essential to an effective public health response, it was stupid and counterproductive. But it speaks volumes about the attitude of some at the Ministry that their first instinct when asked about it was to lie further to try and hide that fact, rather than come clean. Because obviously, that always ends well. You also have to wonder what sort of culture there is there if they thought they could publish something (especially something contentious and flawed) and not have people ask about it.

The OIA has been the law for 40 years now. Questions about stuff the government has published or said are part of the everyday business of democracy. If a Minister says they have received advice on something, someone is going to ask for it. If an agency publishes a graph, someone will want the underlying data. If a department says they've consulted people before making a decision, someone will want to know who and what they said. Agencies should expect and be prepared for this, and most welcome it as a discipline to ensure they do good work. But someone at Ministry of Health just didn't think about it, then did a mad, failed attempt at a coverup, and as a result they have a massive and completely avoidable PR fail which has undermined public confidence in a key government policy area. And if I was the Minister, I'd be pretty annoyed by that, and the unprofessional agency culture which allowed it to happen.