A bouquet for Statistics New Zealand

(and some questions as well).

I got home at lunchtime after a couple of hours out with the kids to find a very pleasant surprise.

Following the kerfuffle last week about the Reserve Bank’s leak inquiry, and the discontinuation of the Bank’s lock-ups for media and analysts, someone reminded me that not just Treasury but also Statistics New Zealand holds regular lock-ups involving market-sensitive macroeconomic information.   Statistics New Zealand runs lock-ups

for media and market commentators for Gross Domestic Product, Balance of Payments and International Investment Position, Consumers Price Index, and Labour Market Statistics releases.

I wondered (a) what procedures Treasury and Statistics New Zealand used,  and (b) whether either organisation had changed their procedures in light of the Reserve Bank’s leak inquiry and subsequent decision to discontinue lock-ups.

So last weekend I logged OIA requests with each organization, and assumed I’d hear something in a few weeks time.

But Statistics New Zealand responded this morning (in due course, their full response will be here).  Often enough, blanket refusals take 20 working days or more, but here was a department offering a prompt, clear and helpful reply, and offering to answer any follow-up questions.

Here are the SNZ procedures

Prior to the commencement of a media conference, Statistics NZ requires attendees to sign in and surrender their cell phones. In addition, Statistics NZ displays the following media conference rules for attendees to abide by:

  • the media conference is held as a ‘lock-up’
  • once you have entered the room, you must not leave until 10:45am when the embargo is lifted
  • please sign in, turn off your mobile phones, including smartphones, and put them in the compartment at the conference room entrance
  • laptop external wireless communication devices must be placed beside the laptop on the media room table for the duration of the media conference, and cannot be connected to the computer until the embargo is lifted
  • laptops or other devices that have internal wireless network capability must not connect or transmit until the embargo has been lifted
  • we reserve the right to inspect devices to ensure that internal wireless capability is turned off.

Statistics NZ staff are happy to assist you with any questions about these guidelines.

 Note: Before the media conference starts, attendees are permitted to call their office, from Statistics NZ provided phones, to set up redial capability for use at 10:45am.

And here is the response as to whether they have made any changes or reviewed their procedures

Statistics NZ has not undertaken any reviews or made any changes to the department’s policy for media conferences following the Official Cash Rate leak at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the subsequent Deloitte report into that leak released last week.

Unfortunately, Statistics New Zealand seems still to be relying, in effect, on trust  (in much the same way the Reserve Bank was doing).   But the headline statistics that they hold lock-ups for are highly market-sensitive, and will not infrequently move markets more than an OCR announcement will (as one would expect; it is the same data the Reserve Bank uses).  There is no sign of, say, any jamming technology (or other technical means) being used, to buttress the role of trust.

Statistics New Zealand notes that

While Statistics NZ has never had a breach, if that trust is abused and an embargo is broken, offenders and their organisation would be barred from attending future media conferences.

Unfortunately, that was probably the sort of discipline/incentive the Reserve Bank was implicitly relying on as well.

As I’ve argued previously, the case for pre-release lock-ups for monetary policy announcements is weak (with the possible exception of a highly secure 10 minute lock-up for core financial journalists, with no additional briefings –  something like the model the US Federal Reserve apparently uses).  Is Statistics New Zealand that different?  There is, obviously, no policy message SNZ is trying to put across with its releases, and so no risks of different messages getting to different people.  But the security risks are the same.  Perhaps it is simply more efficient to have everyone in the same room, to clarify key technical points, but couldn’t the same end be achieved –  on a more competitively neutral basis (to analysts based abroad, say) –  by a dial-in (even webcast) conference call held a bit later on the day of the release?

Anyway, the point of this post was to praise Statistics New Zealand for its timely (“as soon as reasonably practicable”) response to an OIA request.    Quite what approach Statistics New Zealand should take in future is a matter for them, but I would encourage them to think again about the risks, and about alternative –  perhaps preferable –  models for helping to ensure that users can get whatever technical insight SNZ can offer into the numbers it releases.    Breaches may never have happened, but when one does happen –  and (by accident or intent) with current systems  it must be a matter of time – it can suddenly get extremely uncomfortable.

UPDATE: For those with a taste for obscure historical episodes, chapter 1 of this document –  linked to by a commenter – is well worth a read on the great data leak of 1905.

 

 

16 thoughts on “A bouquet for Statistics New Zealand

  1. Jamming devices are illegal in New Zealand due to radio spectrum rules (understandable when you think about it for a minute). There are some licenses granted for them, but I understand these are limited to Corrections facilities at the present. Not detracting from your overall point, but just making this factual matter clear.

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  2. Thanks – that is helpful clarification. I noticed Jenny Ruth, in an article on Monday, referred to “a quick internet search reveals a number of commercially available options”. If govt agencies regard lock-ups as important for market sensitive information, perhaps they should seek a licence? Or build a shared room somewhere in central Wgtn designed to block wireless signals?

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    • Comes back to risk/cost/benefit analysis, doesn’t it, which is the overall thrust of your article. The risks and costs are clear. The benefits have had less attention. I think there is a genuine desire on the part of the institutions to give journalists/analysts a fair opportunity for analysis in an age of instant demand for their output.

      There are other options institutions could consider which fall differently on the policing vs trust spectrum, eg
      1. provide every lock-up attendee with a clean PC or laptop, unable to connect to the net with a clean USB to save their copy to. When the lock up ends, they can transfer the USB and e-mail/transmit the copy.
      2. More rigorous checks of attendee’s devices.
      3. Fines or other personal sanctions for breaches.
      (these are only some ideas I’ve dreamed up in the past 5 minutes)

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  3. Yes, I’m sure all the institutions concerned have the best motivations.

    I also think international comparisons are useful. I’m totally unaware of practice in other countries re stats agencies and data releases (except that the ABS does not do advance release lock-ups).

    The other trade-off that needs to be considered is about access to events. I’m not sure about SNZ, but Tsy and the RB offered their lock-ups only in Wgtn – disadvantaging (or putting to a high cost) anyone based elsewhere, especially offshore (and most NZD trade is done offshore). That is partly why I like the idea of after-release dial in/webcast conference calls – easy to access, everyone gets the same info, and people can choose whether on this particular occasion it is worth dialing in. Someone like me, for example, might want to listen in, or dial in, if there was a particularly odd set of SNZ numbers, but to attend regularly would simply be a waste of time,

    But if lockups are going to continue, your option 1 sounds attractive (a little expensive perhaps, but recoupable by a modest annual charge for attendance).

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  4. SNZ have an Auckland lock-up, with a video link back to Wellington to enable attendees to ask questions of the SNZ Wellington-based technical experts.

    Putting possible leak issues aside, I’m inclined to agree that there is an issue of unfair access here similar to that previously provided by the RBNZ. Attendees have an advantage in understanding the likely market importance and reaction to a market-moving statistic compared to the vast majority of interested parties that do attend. It probably is a practice that should be discontinued. There is no reason that a phone or web-based video conference could not be held after the numbers are released.

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  5. Non-Government organisations joined public servants in a packed all day “hui” intended by Finance Minister Bill English to convince the Government agencies to start sharing the huge volumes of data they hold on New Zealanders.

    Mr English wants the data shared so that social services can be directed more specifically towards at risk individuals and groups.

    But public servants have been reluctant to share information – perhaps worried that the more they empower the non-Governmental groups, the more they are likely to take over social serviced delivery traditionally undertaken by state agencies.

    But it was clear from a keynote speech from Finance Minister, Bill English, that he is finding pushback from the bureaucracy in supplying the data to the NGO’s.

    “Access to data shouldn’t be the exclusive reserve of government – but that’s what it largely is because in many cases access is being decided ad hoc,” he said.

    http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2016/04/the_solution_for_bill_and_open_data.html

    Again a bit off topic but this will be music to many ears. Keep pushing Micheal.

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    • The other reason that Bill English would like more information shared is because as Housing NZ minister he originally took up this portfolio with the intent to drive the high rise and high density development of $10 billion of Housing NZ land as part of the government drive to push the housing supply agenda as part of a 2 prong approach together with Nick Smith. However the difficulty he faces is that there are old folk living in everyone of those $10 billion dollars worth of property. He does not want to admit he and the government is faced with a huge political fallout trying to shift hundreds of dependents if he wants to build. The public needs the facts in order to support fully support the government if they push ahead with development of Housing NZ $10 billion of low rise single houses on large sites worth a million each with one family.

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  6. What would be a pleasant surprise would be for Stats NZ to split up the net PLT number of 67,600 into its respective categories. After all they do provide a split for gross. Not sure why they continue to stir the anti migration lynch mob by not immediately showing the fact that net PLT includes

    Fee paying international students
    Tourists
    Returning kiwis

    There seems to be a agenda behind their monthly reminder of record net PLT when they know full well it stirs the emotions of anti migration lynch mobs.

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  7. Just to say that in my (extensive) contacts with Stats over many years, under various chief executives, the place has systematically been responsive to user requests and queries, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they’re equally as open and responsive on the OIA front. A very good culture at Stats, shown also by their Plain English awards, where they’ve systematically put an extra to get their messages across. As you were writing your piece, i was writing one that finished “Stats really does go the extra mile to connect with its users”….

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