Speaker by Various Artists


Properly Public: It's our information

by Mark Harris

One of the joys of a new government, depending on your level of masochism, is the release of Briefings to the Incoming Minister (or BIMs). Even if the Government doesn't change, technically each Minister is “incoming” because they have a new warrant. It's a chance for ministries, departments and other crown agencies to take stock and summarise the way ahead, flagging any urgent needs the Minister might need to attend to. It's also a chance for them to get some things out in the open, where they might otherwise be hidden in corporate reporting, and to signal where changes across the sector might be on the horizon. Treasury's BIM is always widely scrutinised for that reason. There's a handy list on the Beehive website, but I've found it's not complete.

Not all Crown Agencies produce a BIM. The core Public Service agencies do and some of the Crown entities but there are many (most) that are not required to as they don't report to a minister. There's a great brochure on the State Services Commission website  which breaks down the agencies into sectors. In jargon terms, this is the “machinery of government” (we used to talk about “whole of government” - until someone wrote down the acronym...)

There are 32 Public Service departments subject to the State Sector Act. All bar the GCSB have provided a BIM this year, and the GCSB would probably claim that theirs was so secret we couldn't see it anyway, so there. Interestingly, the SIS is not part of the Public Service, though still (like the Police) regarded as part of the State Services. They didn't do one either, though the Police, the Parliamentary Counsel Office and the Defence Force (in conjunction with the MoD) all did.

Of the 208 named entities in the machinery brochure, 77 have produced BIMs (including the New Zealand Ballet – WTF? Maybe they're going for funding later in the year), in some cases multiple BIMS (MED, Justice and DIA among others have multiple Ministers) for a total of 119 documents and 2865 pages. Now that's what I call bedtime reading! And they're still coming in, as far as I can see. The list at the Beehive site doesn't include all the ones I know about as yet.

This post isn't about the content of the BIMs – it will take me a while to read them all, and I might drop a few like Veterans' Affairs and the Artificial Limb Board. What I want to post about is the format, and what it means for open government.

Firstly, I'm really glad they publish them at all. Once upon a time, the BIM was strictly between the Minister and the Department, and they could be very free and frank indeed. When I joined the Post Office in 1982, I must have been part of the last tranche of public servants who had to sign the Official Secrets Act as part of my induction. It was replaced in July 1983 by the Official Information Act which proposed:

consistently with the principle of the Executive Government's responsibility to Parliament,—

(a) to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order—

(i) to enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and

(ii) to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials,—

and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand:

(b) to provide for proper access by each person to official information relating to that person:

(c) to protect official information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the preservation of personal privacy.

 The bone of contention over the years has been the “increase progressively”! Still, we get a lot more now than we used to.

While the BIMs are designed to get a new Minister familiar with their responsibilities quickly, especially anything urgent, they are also a valuable resource to the public who find ministerial pronouncements too opaque to make sense of. IF they can be read, and that's a big if and the main reason for this post.

There are some issues. Long after my time at the NZPO, I was in at the beginning of the government getting on the web, firstly at IRD where I built their initial website in 1996, and later at SSC as part of the E-government Unit. In that role, I was responsible for developing and publishing the Government Web Guidelines (later, Standards) to try to ease accessibility to government information by ensuring information wasn't locked into formats that, for example, blind people couldn't process through text reading software. We weren't alone in this – the US had the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the UK had their own Web Guidelines (which we pillaged thoroughly!).

It's 10 years since we published that first release. The NZG has come a long way in that time, but it's still not perfect, especially when we come to OIA requests. There's still a generation or two that learned their trade under the OSA, rather than the OIA, and look for ways to withold information rather than make it available unless it actually needs to be withheld, but mostly the problems are around people not thinking how information will be used.

Of the 119 documents I downloaded, 96 were only provided as a PDF. Once that would have had me banging my head on the table, as PDFs have regularly been used as electronic versions of paper documents, rather than as containers of information. Don't get me wrong, I'd still prefer to see HTML/CSS documents, but at least the current crop is largely accessible, i.e. they can be read in a text-to-speech (TTS) reader. 8 documents were supplied both as PDF and Word .doc files (Ministry of Health, Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Inland Revenue), 2 were provided as Word .doc only (Creative New Zealand and the Artifical Limb Board), and 1 was supplied as .docx only (Health Quality & Safety Commission). The Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs (not on the beehive list) put up a .pptx as an appendix but the main BIM was PDF.

Only 12 documents were supplied in PDF and HTML (Conservation, Corrections, Labour, Education, Science and Innovation, Takeovers Panel and Treasury) and only one was supplied as  HTML only (Teacher's Council).

This is disappointing, as HTML is the language of the web. It's actually very easy to repurpose word-processed documents as semantic HTML, if you design your documents to be semantic in the first place. Sadly, most government agencies even now seem to still regard computers as fancy typewriters. And the web as somewhere you put stuff after you've finished with it.

The worst BIMs, though, come from a group of agencies who really don't “get it” at all. Their PDFs are scanned of printed pages or locked PDFs that you can't even cut and paste from and they are:

CERA – text but locked – content copying not allowed.

Crown Law – scanned paper pages

MED Small Business – scanned paper pages (Oddly, the other MED BIMs were fine)

MFAT - scanned paper pages (no huge surprise there – MFAT are notorious for being hard to prise any information out of) (IMHO, of course ;-)

NZ Police – scanned paper pages

Reserve Bank – password secured so that annotation and extracting pages is disallowed

Tertiary Education Commission – scanned paper pages

Tourism New Zealand – pages appear to be images, probably produced by a smart copier

Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit – scanned paper pages 

CERA and RBNZ obviously knew better, but still allowed their need to 'control' the information get in the way of disseminating it to the public. The other agencies should know better but old habits are obviously hard to break. I have copies of the 2008 BIMs as well (a number of agencies still have them on their site, but not a majority) and they are still available from the Beehive site as well. If I can find the time, in the next little while, I'll review them the same way and see whether we're improving or not. But it is disappointing that, 10 years after first setting down standards for publishing on the web, we still have recalcitrant agencies who think they own our information.

If I had to pick an agency that did it best, I'd probably say Treasury. Aside from COMU's brainfart (and they've always plowed their own furrow), they produced their reports with HTML as the primary format and with Persistent URLs (PURLs) so that links remain live permanently. The Department of Conservation comes a close second as their primary format is HTML.

There may be other BIMs to come. If I see them, I'll note them in the comments.

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