Data handover raises questions
Routinely, New Zealand firms complain about red tape and regulations. Yet last week, the OECD was pointing to this country’s lack of mandatory rules for redundancy payouts and unemployment insurance. As the OECD argued, while many Kiwis who have been laid off get new jobs quite quickly, these new positions tend to be on worse pay, and with poorer work conditions.
One area where the Nanny State is willing to flex its regulatory muscle is over the provision of social assistance, and in policing the non-government agencies (aka NGOs) that deliver it. Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley for instance, has recently demanded that NGOs must hand over personal details about their clients, on pain of having their funding cancelled.
Last week however, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards found this decree was an excessive intrusion on privacy. Tolley has now decided to postpone the requirement for a few months, at least until the Ministry can devise a secure system of data storage. Also, agencies dealing with victims of sexual violence will be exempted for a year from the handover demand.
The policy surfaced without prior consultation. Intentionally or otherwise, it seems likely to deter the needy from seeking help, given that (a) MSD has shown several times beforehand that it cannot store confidential information securely and (b) any information provided in confidence to an NGO may well be used in future to alter the terms of access to assistance.
Such fears seem wellgrounded. Last week, evidence emerged of two recent personal disclosure lapses by MSD. In addition, Tolley explained that this anonymised data may be used in future for ‘‘coverage’’ purposes, to detect whether people are accessing more than one agency – as if this was something that should be deterred. To some observers, it was not immediately apparent why the MSD should be unduly concerned if someone sought help on social housing from one NGO, advice on sexual violence from another and budgeting advice from yet another, given the expertise required.
The data handover issue is not about enhancing accountability. Already, the agencies in question provide swathes of information to MSD on outcomes, to justify their continued access to funding. The mandatory handover appears to be more about devising cuts to the $330 million budget for the assistance provided by NGOs. This may boost ‘‘efficiency’’. Yet nothing appears more likely to sabotage the trust between an NGO and people in need than a requirement to hand over personal details to the state.
If extending assistance to the needy really was the point of this regulation then Tolley might have been better advised to start with her own MSD staff, to ensure that they are adequately informing the public about the assistance already available. There are wider concerns. For several years, New Zealand has been a self-proclaimed global leader in the use of anonymised data to target and deliver welfare policy.
The two leading Cabinet advocates of this ‘‘big data’’ approach to welfare delivery were the-then Finance Minister Bill English on one hand, and Tolley’s MSD predecessor Paula Bennett on the other. Presumably, both the PMand his deputy continue to support Tolley’s stance on this issue.