People can agree or disagree with the government and its official agencies on the various numerous specifics of the handling of the coronavirus, up to and including yesterday’s decisions. But whether you, or I, agree with individual choices that have been made – and I’m sceptical of more than a few of them – isn’t the point of this post, which is about the serious lack of transparency of official advice etc through this period of wrenching dislocation, in which lives were at risk, civil liberties shredded, the ability of people to earn their living badly disrupted, Parliament suspended and so on. Perhaps most or even all those decisions were the right ones – something that will probably be debated for the next 100 years, as aspects of the 1918 flu or much about the Great Depression still is- but no one can argue they were normal, routine or inconsequential matters. And yet the government and its agencies have revealed only what suits them, when it suits them, exposes itself to little serious scrutiny, and treats the public like children, or subjects, not citizens (I gave up reading the full page propaganda in each day’s newspaper after one particular piece of official condescension – implying, as I recall, that I was doing the government a favour by looking after my children – got too much for me).
Once upon a time, almost 40 years ago now, a government (it and its leader still widely reviled by many) passed into law the Official Information Act.
Fine words, admirable principles.
Come forward in time and less than three years ago we find a Cabinet minister in the current government – the minister responsible for open government no less – telling Parliament
Hon CLARE CURRAN: Thank you, Mr Speaker. My priority is that this will be the most open, most transparent Government that New Zealand has ever had. We will do this in several ways, including requiring proactive disclosure of some official information,
Of course, she didn’t last long. And if the rhetoric lingered for a while, it never seemed to have very much substance at all. Little, for example, has been seen of the promised overhaul of the Official Information Act, to help better align agency practice with the intent of the Act.
Even many public servants quite like proactive disclosure – it takes less work than dealing with Official Information Act requests – but not this government apparently, and certainly not as this crisis has unfolded. For them, it seems as though they’ve taken the “war” rhetoric to heart and decided to act as if some enemy is listening, and never mind citizens – whose country, whose lives, whose livelihoods, whose freedoms are being upended. Perhaps the government acts from the best of motives, but so what? Being human they’ll make mistakes too. Facing an election, they’ll make partisan calls under the guise of responding to a crisis (we saw several of those in last month’s economic package). And even if they operated flawlessly and only with the best of motives, official information is presumptively our information. Our taxes paid for it. And when politicians claim to be acting on advice – which may or may not be the right thing to do, depending on the quality of the advice and the alignment of the interests/rersponsibilities of those giving the advice – surely it is only reasonable that citizens (mostly not being children) should be able to see that advice, now when it matters, not in a year’s time when, with luck and a favourable wind, the Ombudsman finally compels release?
As far as I can tell, we have seen not a single pro-active release by the government or any of its ministries or agencies of any analysis or advice generated with those agencies and relevant to decisionmaking, or evaluation of decisions, on responding to the coronavirus, or the economic or social effects of the virus and private or public responses to (the risk of) it. Perhaps worst is the Ministry of Health, which appears to have a central role in advising the government, and exercising some powers itself: they have belatedly released some (questionable) Otago University modelling, and belatedly released the Verrall report on contact tracing, but we have seen not a word of their advice or analysis, or of any frameworks they are using to shape their advice.
It is no better on the economic side. On the purely economic response side, the Reserve Bank and its Monetary Policy Committee has appeared consistently complacent and slow to react, then lurching into the extraordinary commitment not to cut the OCR further no matter how bad the economic and inflation situation gets. But none of their supporting analysis or advice, for far-reaching unconventional interventions (and not), has seen the light of day – and, despite the Official Information Act, is unlikely ever to do so, successive Ombudsmen having proved extraordinarily deferential to the Bank.
On The Treasury side, pro-active release of papers relating to the annual Budget has long been a very positive feature. But we’ve seen nothing at all of the analysis and advice that contributed to the large economic package – some coronavirus related, some just electioneering – announced a month ago, or any of the interventions since. And, of course, we have seen not a hint of any advice or analysis provided to the government or the Ministry of Health in advance of either the inital partial lockdown decision or the latest extension of restrictions announced yesterday. Is there even a hint of any sort of serious cost-benefit analysis in The Treasury’s approach/advice? Are they even seriously near the top table at all? We simply don’t know. Even the economic scenarios paper released last week – useful in its way – masked as much as it revealed, because most of the underlying analysis – eg just how large are the economic losses at each of the government’s “levels” – is hidden.
And, of course, we have seen precisely none of the Cabinet papers – of which there must be very many, large and small, relevant to decisionmaking around the crisis over the last three months. The Epidemic Preparedness Act can only be invoked on the advice of the Director-General of Health, but we’ve not seen the substance of his advice or recommendation. We are told that yesterday Cabinet acted in accordance with the advice/recommendation of the Director-General, but we’ve seen no sign of that either – including, thus, no ability to assess the Director-General’s advice on aspects that he (and his agency) know precisely nothing about – not just the economic dimensions of choices, but those around liberty, rights, civil society and so on. It would be good some day to see, for example, the advice that led the government to acquiesce in the barbarism of banning funerals – and, recall, they are still banned until next week. At present, instead, we have nothing.
Now, no doubt in time at least some of this material will emerge, whether in response – typically very slow response – to Official Information Act requests, or perhaps to the Royal Commission which a growing number of people have called for but which calls the government continues to ignore (it might be a little easier to cut them some slack now if there were a serious commitment to open and transparent ex post accountability). But generally openness and transparency – perhaps taken to the limit, deluging people with material – is a good way to win trust and confidence. Unless, that is, the processes are so chaotic, and the analysis/advice so flimsy and insubstantial, that actually confidence might be eroded. But if things are really that bad – and just on what we know it wouldn’t surprise me at all if much of it is – surely citizens, whose lives, health, livelihoods, and freedom are at stake – have a fundamental right to know.
Instead, all we are left with is a “trust us, we know what we are doing” approach, accompanied by communications that treat us as children not citizens.
Perhaps some of you have some great confidence in one or more of the sets of individuals, or institutions, involved. I can only say that I wish I shared your confidence.
At a political level – the people we elect, the only people we can toss out – we must be the only country in the world where the Minister of Health is banished and invisible amid a major public health event. Before he went invisible he was pretty consistently upbeat and complacent – nothing to suggest he saw the most stringent lockdown in the western world on the horizon (that lockdown is, after all, a sign of relative failure not of success). That Minister was appointed, and left in place, by the Prime Minister – the same one who promised that last year was going to be her government’s “Year of Delivery”, which didn’t quite eventuate. The Minister of Finance seems to be competent enough within established bounds, but there is no sign of any developed framework for thinking about the economic issues and challenges from him either.
Then, of course, there is the Ministry of Health. Everyone in Wellington recognised how degraded its capability had become under the previous Director-General. And while it remains all the thing in some circles to praise the current Director-General, it isn’t really quite clear why. Wasn’t there a measles epidemic going on just a few months ago (although in coronavirus-time it is easy to lose track of the months)? As I noted on Twitter yesterday, I went back and looked at the most recent Ministry of Health Annual Report and the Ministry’s output plan, and found no substantive references to epidemic/pandemic issues at all, but a lot of right-on Wellington public service rhetoric. It isn’t as if there have been no pandemic threats this century, and if the Ministry of Health isn’t keeping these issues/risks front of consciousness, including public/political consciousness, they aren’t really doing their job.
What about after the coronavirus itself became an issue? As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there is little practical sign of much urgency about their approach, or their advice. We can see this, for example, in how other government agencies (including the RB) did or didn’t respond. We can also see it in how the Director-General was talking in public, including constantly playing down the risks of asymptomatic infections. We can see it in the Ministry’s official Twitter feed: as late as 29 February it was still telling us there was more of a threat from fear, rumours, and stigma than from the virus itself, and as late as mid-March was still sounding quite unconcerned about major events (no doubt a bit constrained by the Prime Minister’s indifference).
So perhaps the Ministry of Health has had everything just right for the last month or more – although the Verrall report didn’t suggest so – but even if that were true, and it frankly seems unlikely (where was this excellent capability – including, for example, in integrating economic and health perspectives – going to spring from?) we shouldn’t simply have to take their word for it. It is one of those principles of open government.
I could go on. Thanks to Peter Hughes, the State Services Commissioner, in whom few in Wellington (his acolytes apart) seem to have much confidence, we have a new Secretary to the Treasury with no past experience whatever in national policymaking, in charge of an institution that under its previous head had become more interested in, and recruiting for, luxury fluff around “living standards frameworks”, “wellbeing budgets etc” than around hard analysis, including the contigency planning for really severe adverse events. Perhaps the agency has been offering consistently superlative advice through this crisis, but it would be a surprise – whether given the starting disadvantages, or the evidence of complacency seen in the Secretary’s involvement in Reserve Bank decisionmaking. But again, it would not natually be the assumption I’d make. And we should’t have to assume, we should have timely access to relevant advice and analysis.
And then, of course, there is the Reserve Bank. They talk a little more than most agencies, but unfortunately little of it is reassuring in this context. There was the public minimisation of the issue as late as late February – when they were still expecting an upturn this year – the sluggish monetary policy response, the inexplicable pledge not to cut the OCR further no matter how bad things get, the misrepresentations to Parliament about the scale of what they have been doing, the public flip-flops over just a few weeks on negative interest rates, and so on. All this from a Governor who had previously seemed much more interested in climate change and infrastructure than in doing his job, and who spent last year telling us how much more capital our banks needed to just be up with international peers, and now tries to tell us (more correctly in my view) that without any increases we have one of safer banking systems in the world. Oh, and then there was that strange strange Stuff op-ed in which Orr sought to present the coronavirus economic shock as something akin to a summer shower of rain, from which the economy would emerge refreshed and vibrant. Based on what we see, there is little reason to have any particular trust in the analysis and advice they will fight hard to ensure we will never see.
There simply is no class of superb mandarins, to whom we might prudently and confidently defer. The systematic degrading of the public service has seen to that. Even if there were such people, they need to be open and accountable. Even if there were such people, their values – inevitably statist in nature – aren’t the only ones. But if there are any such superb mandarins at all, it isn’t obvious where in the relevant bits of the public sector they are hiding.
It isn’t really clear what the government thinks it has to gain by the secrecy. Perhaps things really are worse than even sceptics assume. Perhaps the Prime Minister is allowing herself to be led by the nose by officials who are routinely averse to scrutiny and transparency, and really do think the public – citizens, voters – really are just best kept in the dark, treated as children – while the adults sort things out. Whatever the explanation, there is no adequate justification. And responsibility for the failure – the secrecy, the obstruction – rests totally with the Prime Minister. If she wanted an open and transparent government – amid a wrenching crisis with no real precedent – she could have it tomorrow. By her (in)actions, she reveals her preferences.