Obstructionism from SSC

Several months ago now the State Services Commissioner announced the appointment of a new Secretary to the Treasury.   The new appointee finally takes up the position later this month.

When the appointment was announced I wrote a fairly sceptical post, noting that the appointment process had been long and slow, suggesting that there had not been an abundance of high quality applicants, let alone a standout one or two people who might, almost naturally, have succeeded to the position.   That in itself should been enough to raise questions about how well the State Services Commission has been doing its job, given that (a) one of those roles was to nurture and develop talent at the senior levels of the public service, and that (b) really successful organisations tend to promote from within (an element of the success having been in nurturing and retaining talent).

As I wrote then, I am also sceptical about the new appointee herself.   She has no experience in a national economic policy agency (having worked primarily in research at the World Bank, and then in NSW state government roles –  NSW being more than a city council but rather less than a country), has no apparent knowledge of, or background in, New Zealand, and has no obvious long-term vested interest (her own future or that of her family) in the economic success of New Zealand.     At best –  and as I noted at the time, no one in New Zealand willing to comment publicly seems to know her well –  we might have acquired a smart generic public sector manager who would not have been a serious contender for a similarly senior role in her own country, and probably sees herself on a career path back to upper levels of the Australian (or NSW) public service in a few years time.  At best.    And this in a country where (a) The Treasury is the government’s premier economic adviser, and (b) whose long-term economic underperformance has been dire, a situation that shows no sign of reversing.

Against that backdrop it seemed reasonable to ask a few questions about the selection process, evem bearing in mind that –  as I wrote when the position was advertised –  the advertisement seemed designed to recruit a safe generic sector manager, and that seems to have been what the SSC found.

The National Party seem to have thought it was worth asking questions in Parliament. That should have ensured that they got decent answers –  after all, parliamentary questions aren’t subject to all the agency protections the OIA provides.   But it seems to have been a hard road even for them.   They seem to have asked eight written questions of the Minister of State Services (in the 2019 series, questions 27398, 27396, 27394, 27393, 27392, 27391, 27390, 27389).

Most of the questions were asking about the applicants for the position of Secretary to the Treasury (not individually, but information such as the male/female split, citizen/non-citizen, resident/non-resident, total number of applicants, economics qualifications of applicants).  Every single one of those questions seemed reasonable and appropriate questions for MPs to ask about the appointment process around the most important public service job.   But on every single one of those demographic questions the Minister of State Services –  Chris Hipkins  –  simply refused to provide a substantive answer, offering this standard response

“I am advised that the State Services Commission does not release information about applicants to chief executive roles in the interest of privact. Information provided by applicants to the State Services Commission is done on a confidential basis.”

Which might have been fine had National been asking for the names and addresses of all applicants, but this was aggregated data they were requesting.  It looked a lot like obstructionism for the sake of it, by a Minister whose government used to claim it would be “the most open and transparent ever”.

Seeing these responses, I was aware that –  for example –  similar data had been requested, and released, in response to OIA requests around the appointment of Reserve Bank MPC members.    And so I lodged an Official Information Act request with the State Services Commission asking for a similar range of information, but not just about the applicants as a group (where there could be all sorts of non-serious people) but about the subset of applicants SSC had chosen to interview.  In my request I pointed out that another public agency had already released similar information around other appointments (ie the Reserve Bank roles), and that I was not seeking any individual personal information, or information that in total might allow the identification of any individual.  It seemed to me inconceivable that the OIA would allow SSC to get away with a blanket refusal.

At around the same time, the National Party lodged a new parliamentary question asking who had advised that releasing the information sought in the earlier questions would be a breach of privacy.  That seems to have helped spark a rethink, whether in the Minister’s office or at SSC.  This was the answer Paul Goldsmith received.

29115 (2019). Hon Paul Goldsmith to the State Services (Minister – Chris Hipkins) (07 Aug 2019): Further to WPQ 27394 (2019), who advised the Minister that releasing the number of applicants for the position of Secretary to the Treasury who were based in New Zealand or overseas at the time of the application breaches the privacy of the applicants?                                                                                                     Hon Chris Hipkins (State Services (Minister – Chris Hipkins)) replied: On 25 July 2019, I was advised by the State Services Commission (SSC) that it does not release information about applications to chief executive roles in the interest of privacy. I did not receive advice that stated releasing the number of applicants information breaches the privacy of the applicants.SSC has subsequently reviewed their advice and have advised they will be releasing the information in response to written parliamentary questions 27389, 27390, 27391 and 27394 (2019) having balanced privacy and public interests.

SSC has advised that 24 applications were received for the position of Secretary to the Treasury and that information provided in the applications indicates that eight applicants for the role of Secretary to the Treasury held a Masters or higher qualification in an Economics based discipline.

They also advised that information provided in the applications indicates that eight applicants were resident in NZ and 10 applicants were not resident in NZ at the time of their application for the role of Secretary to the Treasury. Information for six applicants is not held by SSC.

This is also my response to written parliamentary questions 29116, 29117, 29118, 29119, 29120, 29121, 29123, 29124, 29125 and 29127 (2019).

And last week I got a response to my OIA request to SSC.

I had requested this information

I am writing to request the following information about the recent process to fill the position of Secretary to the Treasury.

  1. How many applications were received?
  2. What proportion of applicants were (as best you can tell) female?
  3. What proportion of applicants were New Zealand citizens?
  4. What proportion of applicants had at least an honours/masters degree in economics?
  5. What proportion of applicants had a PhD in economics?
  6. What proportion of applicants could reasonably be described as long-term New Zealand public servants?
  7. What proportion of applicants were living/working abroad at the time of application?
  8. How many of the applicants were interviewed by SSC?
  9. What proportion of those interviewed were female?
  10. What proportion were living/working in New Zealand at the time of application/interview.

As I took pains to stress, it was inconceivable that even answering all those questions completely could identify any individual (since I wasn’t asking for any cross-tabs –  eg “how many male PhD applicants were living in New Zealand”).

In respect of the applications, SSC gave me much the same answers they provided to the Minister to answer Paul Goldsmith’s questions (which was a little annoying since some of the questions were different –  thus I never found out how many of the 24 applicants had “at least an honours/Masters degree in economics”).

The information on applicants was only mildly interesting because all sorts of people, some wildly unsuitable, apply for all sorts of jobs –  whether because people are deluded about their abilities, or on the remote chance of it helping get a New Zealand visa.  You get the feel there must have been some of that going on with these applications: there were 24 of them, and yet SSC claims not to know where a quarter of the applicants were living/working at the time of the application, which simply isn’t credible in respect of any serious applicant (who will have details of currrent employment as part of their CV and application).  SSC also claims not to have known the citizenship of a quarter of the applicants, even though they were applying for a position requiring a very high level security clearance.  For what it is worth, here is what they did tell me

  • seven applicants had NZ citizenship and 11 did not have NZ citizenship

  • eight applicants were resident in NZ and 10 applicants were not resident in NZ.

NZ residency and NZ citizenship information for six applicants is not held by the State Services Commission (SSC)

I had asked about what proportion of the applicants could reasonably be described as long-term New Zealand public servants. I deliberately framed the question that way to (a) minimise work for SSC, and (b) because I wasn’t interested in whether someone had spent two years as a junior analyst 30 years ago or (indeed) disqualifying them if having spent 30 years in the public service, they had spent the last couple of years getting experience in the private sector or overseas.     SSC claimed not to know the answer to this question –   which looks a lot like obstruction again –  but did tell me that only seven of the 24 applicants (not including the successful applicant) had indicated some experience (who knows when) in the New Zealand public service.

Also looking like obstructionism, the SSC refused to tell me (or, via Hipkins, the National Party) how many applicants had a PhD in economics.  Again, they claimed this was on the grounds of privacy. But that is simply nonsense.  Whether there were one, five or seven such applicants (the successful applicant has a PhD in Finance) cannot possibly identify any individuals.  Perhaps it would be embarrassing to SSC if the answer was none (although in my view it needn’t be –  a research qualification, which is what a PhD largely is, shouldn’t be a prerequisite for such a position)?

In many respects, I was most interested in the group of applicants SSC interviewed –  after all, they were the people SSC must have regarded as the most credible applicants.  SSC told me that they interviewed five candidates, two of whom (including the successful applicant) were female. But they have flatly refused to answer the final question about what proportion of those they interviewed were living/working in New Zealand at the time of application/interview.  Again this was (allegedly) to “protect the privacy of individuals”.  They went on to say

The SSC information release confidentiality guidelines ensure we allow as much high value information as possible to be released, while ensuring that it is not in a form that could reasonably expect to identify an individual, or at a level of aggregation where the information is still informative.  These guidelines apply to any statistical information that contains private or confidential information and therefore prevent us releasing the exact number of applicants interviewed who were working in New Zealand at the time of their application.     

I’m not sure how they can justify release the share of interviewees who were female and not the share who were living/working in New Zealand.  Neither can possibly disclose individuals.   Perhaps the answer is in that chilling line that they do not release information “at a level of aggregation where the information is still informative” –  which would seem to run directly counter to the letter and spirit of the Official Information Act.

Since we know that one of the five –  the successful applicant – was living/working overseas, the answer to my question can only be 0%, 20%, 40%, 60% or 80%  (living/working in New Zealand).  The answer could be quite revealing about SSC’s priorities, and/or its talent management and development, but it simply could not tell us who these individuals are (and, of course, nor should it).  My suspicion now –  given SSC’s obstructionism –  is that we would find that hardly anyone living in New Zealand, or with a strong New Zealand background, was interviewed: I hope that wasn’t the case, but given SSC’s approach you have to wonder what they are hiding.

I have asked the Ombudsman to review this SSC refusal, both on the grounds that there is no legitimate protection of individual privacy ground available in this case, but also because the wider public interest would be served by the release of this information, in this case in helping to hold SSC to account for the way in which it is doing its job –  developing and selecting the top tier of the New Zealand public service.

In the meantime, what we do know is that we have an incoming Secretary to the Treasury who looks underqualified for the role, who has few/no New Zealand knowledge or networks, and whose incentives are simply not that well-aligned with the long-term interests of the people of New Zealand.  It looks like a poor appointment –  although time may prove otherwise –  but perhaps she was the least bad that was on offer.    SSC and the government don’t seem too keen on allowing us to get a better sense of that.

(As a reminder, I was not the only commentator to raise doubts about the appropriateness of yet another offshore appointment –  can’t we manage to run our own country? –  and there was a lot to agree with in this column from Simon Chapple, director of Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.)

12 thoughts on “Obstructionism from SSC

  1. Hi Michael,

    I think the sentence in SSC’s response that you’re concerned about

    “The SSC information release confidentiality guidelines ensure we allow as much high value information as possible to be released, while ensuring that it is not in a form that could reasonably expect to identify an individual, or at a level of aggregation where the information is still informative”

    is clumsily drafted, but I don’t think it means that they will not release aggregated information where that would be informative. I read it as a positive opening, a negative sub-clause, followed by a positive final sub-clause. But it’s so torturous that I can easily see why a different construction could be placed on it. If you haven’t already, I would send a follow-up request to SSC, asking for these ‘information release confidentiality guidelines’.

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    • Thanks. Perhaps you are right – your reading would certainly seem more plausible as something they would voluntarily say in public – but in any case the specific (alleged) privacy issue is now with the Ombudsman.

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  2. So she’s under-qualified, doesn’t know our quirky economy, has no vested interest or skin in the game for our long-term economic performance and will likely leave the moment the role expires.

    Sounds perfect!

    Surprised Fonterra didn’t hire her?

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  3. The appointment is a disappointment as we suffered the incompetence of the last Secretary and I was hopeful lessons would have been learnt. To some extent it can suit a governments to have a weak Treasury but over time the country suffers. Our economy needs work, there are significant failures and no appetite to strategically change the settings.

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  4. And why isn’t the position only open to NZ Citizens? This is part of Globalist mindset which seems to believe either we don’t have anyone qualified to fill top jobs or that mixing it up with foreigners (which I guess includes Australians) somehow will increase the quality of advice and governance. I don’t believe it for a moment. The country has suffered a rash of dud foreign ring ins, from Hospital Boards, through to the recent Fonterra CEO. The reality is, there is nothing new under the sun and foreigners don’t have secret knowledge they can bring to a position over a New Zealander. And for those “NZ residents” who might protest, become a NZ citizen and show your commitment to the country.

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  5. That’s the negative case

    NSW has a 2016 GDP of $567 billion – nearly twice the size of NZ – with a population slightly greater than NZ – with almost no mining royalties

    In the interest of fair-and-balanced can you do a positive case

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  6. Agree about the need for development of domestic candidates

    My suggestion would have been to head-hunt Dr Ken Henry to come over as a temporary assignment for two years. He has the requisite skills to get a grip of things and with a contract to groom some locals capable of taking on the job

    He’s free at the moment – impressive operator – capable of hitting the ground running

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Henry_(public_servant)

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    • And he has even worked in NZ. Many people might question his suitability given how he handled the NAB job, including the Royal Commission.

      But, yes, seriously smart guy and his speeches were almost always worth reading.

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  7. There is nothing particularly positive that can be said from the NSW background. My point isn’t that NSW is small or poor, but that its government is responsible for only quite a small subset of the things a national Treasury is responsible for (even in a tiny country) – including v little about tax policy and nothing at all about macro policy or key micro issues such as immigration policy. Thus, no one – when she was appointed here – was commenting “my goodness, what a loss to Australia: she really should have been among the leading contenders to be next Secretary to the Aus Federal Treasury.

    The positive case for her probably rests on (a) her apparently being quite highly regarded in her own hierarchy (several DCE roles over the last decade, and (b) her apparently being v smart, incl as evidenced by a PhD in finance from a decent university and some co-authored research publications with high quality co-authors while she was at the World Bank. She is probably a quite capable generic public sector manager – and that seems to have been what Peter Hughes (and Grant Robertson?) were looking for. It isn’t the main thing the job needs (which isn’t a criticism of her – she appears to have rationally pursued her own best interests and grabbed the opportunity on offer).

    Time will tell. Perhaps she will prove superlative in the role. But one of the problems is that no one knows – her – that well now. We shouldn’t be in that position for such an important position: we should be able to see from a well-known and demonstrated track record in a similar situation how she would be likely to do. And, despite the name, NSW Tsy is not like the NZ Treasury.

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    • RE: your reminder. I had read Simon Chapple’s missive prior to my comments – can’t say I was comfortable with either article. The Treasury has 363 staff at last count. There would have to be a good number of supervisory levels reporting to the Treasury Secretary. A deep repository of local knowledge available to the incoming Secretary. If she is an excellent manager she will take full advantage of that and make the most of that local knowledge and if she is smart drive it hard. But then there is the real possibility Makhlouf had sub-consciously run down the talent pool. We don’t know if the current talent pool is largely foreign or nativist

      I’m sure Peter Hughes will be aware that he has to get this appointment right otherwise he should be the next head to roll. I was not impressed with the way Hughes dealt with Makhlouf’s stumble and departure. Very Janus like.

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      • Most of the Treasury second-tier are NZers.

        On your final para point, I doubt Hughes’s job is on the line. He will have appointed the sort of person the govt is comfortable with – a govt that doesn’t particularly care about turning around NZ econ performance or revitalising the Tsy – and he is reputed to be v good at managing his masters.

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