Longstanding obligations to protect privacy appear to have been watered down in the Data and Statistics Bill, writes Len Cook.
Len Cook is a former statistician for the UK and New Zealand governments, a former president of the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration and a former vice-president of the International Statistical Institute.
OPINION: Without notice from all but a select few, the independence of the government statistician and the transparency of sharing and using government data in New Zealand could change after this year.
Statistics Minister David Clark has successfully avoided public scrutiny of the Constitutional implications of the Data and Statistics Bill, although transparency is a legitimate expectation for such change by citizens in a democratic society.
The Bill introduced in Parliament by the Minister waters down the role of the Government Statistician by the simple means of allowing this role to be delegated to unspecified persons or organizations without further legislative oversight or qualification. Nowhere else in the world have such changes been made. Ironically, we now know ministers will similarly dilute the role of independent children’s commissioner with advice.
In effect, the government uses the role and authority of the government statistician to provide an umbrella for extensive data sharing across all government agencies and unspecified non-government entities. Longstanding obligations to protect confidentiality appear to have been watered down. Improvements are now needed in research access and responsiveness to Maori, but these can be solved more simply.
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Departmental administrative records provide data on current policies and practices from the perspective of government administration. Countries that rely most heavily on administrative records for official statistics tend to have extensive administrative registers for addresses and personal data. Such registers require citizens to comply at all times with registration processes which are rare in Westminster systems.
The Data and Statistics Bill will not work with the strict legislative oversight and regulation of data sharing and linking within government that is in place elsewhere, such as Australia’s Data Availability and Transparency Act. data 2022 or the UK Digital Economy Act 2017.
The minister’s arguments in favor of the bill are flippant and frivolous.
“The 1975 law makes no reference to data”.
‘”[The 1975 act] lack of flexibility to respond to the changes in data and digital that we are seeing. »
“… but this  The law was written before the widespread use of personal computers, before social media, before the cultural changes that technology continues to bring about.
“[The 1975 act] does not provide the kinds of tools we need to increase the supply and quality of administrative data – it is therefore data that is collected for other purposes, often: for registrations, the provision of services , transactions, record keeping.”
” … this [the bill] modernizes the framework for access to data and research.
“ … and [the bill] helps Stats New Zealand become a data-driven agency, an administrative data-driven agency. »
Whatever the political predisposition of ministers of the day, we need reliable official statistics to have confidence in how we measure progress or lack thereof on economic, environmental and social concerns.
It is the independence of the government statistician in using confidential information provided to the government solely for statistical purposes that underpins confidence in official statistics. No political, service, or compliance organization that I know of has undoubtedly maintained a consistent reputation for being as accountable, scientific, and transparent, for as long as the government statistician has.
The bill makes the government statistician a close partner of government policy, enforcement, oversight and operational agencies by overseeing the sharing of data on an unspecified scale. It overturns long-standing constitutional checks that distance the government statistician from advocating for policy or justifying the operational implementation of policy.
By granting these agencies the powers of the government statistician, as statistical clones, concerns about the public legitimacy of statistical functions essential to trust in government can lead to a loss of the trust we need to have in this role.
To properly apply the legislative power to legitimize such clones, they should have the required expertise of the government statistician, which is not likely to be an essential requirement or condition for appointment to other positions.
Just last week, the Prime Minister wisely commented that trust in government was “something that can be built over decades but destroyed in just a few years”. The minister could consider on his own. Its removal from Section 17 of the Data and Statistics Bill is essential to affirm the uniqueness of the powers and authority of the government statistician and to ensure its reliability.