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.

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