Aotearoa’s Data Strategy

In December 2020, the Council took part in a closed evaluation of Aotearoa’s Government Chief Data Steward’s (GCDS) 2018 Data Strategy.  This strategy aims to increase the benefit that we obtain from our data while protecting us from unethical uses.  There are similar strategies in most large organisations, in both public and private sectors.

The New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties believes that open government is good in and of itself in addition to being good for democracy.  We desire for everyone to have access to sufficient information to prove to themselves that their rights, and those of their families and communities are being respected.  The government collects and stores large amounts of data about everyone, even before accounting for the massive overreach in formal state surveillance.  Yet, the Council believes that no one can prove that our rights are being respected because the data needed to prove that either does not exist or is so poorly organised as to be practically inaccessible.  Lack of organisation means that no one, regardless of clearance, can assess what information even a single agency holds on an individual, nevermind what data the government as a whole holds on self-identifying groups.

The thesis of Simon Sinek’s best selling business book Leaders Eat Last, is that everyone suffers when we focus on the numbers rather than the people behind them.  He’s correct that reducing people to numbers results in sub-optimal outcomes for both the people being measured and the people doing the measuring.  What Sinek doesn’t talk about is the fact that the number that we are so often reduced to is frequently inaccurate in addition to being dehumanising.  IBM estimates that there is so much inaccurate or inconsistent data that poor data quality costs the USA more than 10% of its GDP.

Aotearoa’s Data Strategy is supposed to be our plan to improve the quality and accessibility of our data.  As a strategy, there is little to critique: the document is short and the main principles are neither innovative nor controversial.

Unfortunately, the majority of government appears to be ignoring this strategy. The Council is troubled that Statistics New Zealand provided no data when asking for an assessment of one of its programmes. To the best of our research, no information has been published on the implementation of the Data Strategy.  That lack of publication is in itself a significant failure of the strategy.  It also suggests a series of other failures in the strategy, for example a failure to define how to measure the strategy.  Finally, this failure to provide data brings competencies into question, and reduces our trust in this programme and in Statistics New Zealand.

In the absence of information rumours dominate, and the anecdotes from our personal experiences and our conversations with our peers throughout the system are that most initiatives are handling data ever more poorly and collectively we are moving in the wrong direction.  The culture in the vast majority of central government, local government, and state owned enterprises values secrecy above all else.  When officials are choosing to defy laws, for example the Official Information Act (1982), rather than to comply with this strategy, then the problem is not with the strategy but with the law and implementation.

The Council made a number of recommendations:

  1. The Government Chief Data Steward (GCDS) seeks statutory powers similar to those granted to the Chief Archivist by the Public Records Act (2005) to audit and correct the behaviours of all government agencies.
  2. The GCDS uses these powers to annually audit the alignment of every agency’s data strategy with GCDS strategy and on every agency’s success in enacting its own strategy.
  3. The GCDS publicly publishes detailed reports on every audit. 
  4. The GCDS acts to increase data literacy throughout the public service, by working with State Services to implement a programme of training and assessment.

The Council has been campaigning for Open Government and Open Data for many years.  The Official Information Act needs to be greatly strengthened.  We also need to start publishing information by default, rather than by exception.  Rana Foroohar, in her recent book Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech, cautions that systems fall apart once people stop believing that the system is good for them.  We agree that forestalling such a collapse of our society deserves significant action today.