Red Alert

Open and shut

Posted by on February 7th, 2012

Every time there’s a new government elected, each of the Ministries and departments provide their new Minister with a briefing on the policy issues and decisions required in their portfolio. They are called Briefings to Incoming Ministers (or BIMs)

This year, some Ministers have chosen to withhold (or redact) substantial amounts of information in these briefings. The MFAT and Communications and IT portfolios are two examples. There are more.

To understand the importance of the BIM and the basis upon which information is withheld from public scrutiny it’s worth reading this thoughtful post from Lawyer John Edwards:

Briefings to the Incoming Minister – Going Backwards From Openness to Secrecy?

In the months leading up to a general election, officials start preparing their Briefing to the Incoming Minister (BIM).  In the months after the general election, these BIMs start getting released.

There are no strict rules about what goes into a BIM, and no special provisions about how or when they are released.  They are produced under a convention recorded in the Cabinet Manual that “when a new Minister is appointed, the chief executive of the department concerned must ensure that, as soon as the Minister takes up office, he or she is briefed on the department and the portfolio”.

They range in size and approach, from a comprehensive stocktake of what is happening in the department or Ministry to a manifesto of the ideological drivers of the officials favoured approach to the particular policy.

Edwards advises that:

Anyone who is interested in seeing more of the BIMs than the Government has seen fit to release should simply write to the Minister concerned, and if they stick to their predetermined position about the deletions, ask the Ombudsman to investigate.  Perhaps then we will have a clearer idea about the expectations next time around.

8 Responses to “Open and shut”

  1. mickysavage says:

    I had a read of the 2011 and 2008 Education BIMs and the differences are stark. The 2008 was what felt like a realistic attempt to summarise what had been happening and what issues the Ministry was facing.

    The 2011 BIM reads more like a PR job. It is somewhat fact free. It was clearly written AFTER the new Government was sworn in because it has this passage:

    “We will support the establishment of a Charter Schools implementation group, which the National- ACT confidence and supply agreement signals will comprise a private sector chair, and private sector, business, iwi and community representatives along with government officials to develop a proposal.”

    One wonders why a Ministry Document would include support for Government Policy. Its inclusion suggests that the Ministry is endorsing the concept of Charter Schools which I suspect is not the case.

    So much for BIMs being independent impartial advice for whoever wins the election.

  2. insumnatio says:

    Maybe its inclusion means the ministry does support it Mickey? Hard and all as that may be for you to accept a government department agreeing with national policy, its highly likely. Seems to me you are still acting like a petulant child months after the election drubbing

  3. Colonial Viper says:

    Its inclusion suggests that the Ministry is endorsing the concept of Charter Schools which I suspect is not the case.

    I’d say it isn’t. But I’d also say that the officials now running the Ministry also have a very clear idea of what is expected from them, their managers and from the documents they release.

  4. Steve Reeves says:

    And the fact that the person now ***running*** the MoE here was formerly in charge of “free schools” in the UK (their version of what seems to be charter schools) is a clear indication of the ministry being steered in one ideological direction.


  5. insider says:

    Differences in BIMs is not a big issue. They is no BIM formula so they’ll differ from agency to agency, CEO to CEO. Different CEO, different approach to a BIM. I’ve read some that are a rehash of the annual report and SOI combined, and others only a few pages long of key issues.

    Redactions could just be a sign of live but not finalised public issues being discussed. We as a public don’t tend to see free and frank advice. Wouldn’t some parts of a good BIM possibly come under that?

  6. Colonial Viper says:

    insider – not sure why you are ignoring a clear pattern of BIM content being increasingly hidden.

  7. insider says:

    WHere does John say there is a ‘clear pattern’? He says they have been regularly released in the past as have a number under this govt, but nothing conclusive. BIMs have been around since the 80s and he hasn’t benchmarked the whole period.

    IMO a number of BIMs I have read in the past have been PR exercises – aimed not really at their primary purpose of frank advice to a minister about issues coming up, but as glossy promo pieces.

    Maybe ministers have changed the instructions to ministries in terms of what they expect from BIMs – more substance less gloss? That would be consistent with their position on annual reports and policy advice in general. I’d prefer ministers go honesty and directness to fluff

  8. KLJT says:

    Of course, the opposite may also be true… that the BIMs produced previously have not had information drafted in to them that could be viewed under the provisions of the OIA or at least to the extent they appear to be now. It is entirely possible that briefings are now produced with greater and more current detail and that contestable advice is being included for Ministers to consider on priorities that have significant resource or policy implications.

    The witholding of information, particularly when 9(2)(f)(iv) is relied upon, has always been a grey area but has seldom been tested and then subsequently overruled by the O’man. A convention allowing free and frank expression of advice is absolutely necessary for officials to be able to communicate with their Ministers. It isn’t always a conspiracy, sometimes the advice should be protected and I’ve done just that on behalf of Labour governments in the past.

    Transparency and openness shouldn’t come at the expense of officials being given licence to provide advice that they’re expert in providing. Forcing openness can and has been detrimental to the provision of that good advice. There must be balance, the OIA is imperfect and Mr Edwards knows this well, hence his assertion to testing the interpretation being relied on in these cases. New Zealand’s freedom of information laws are among the most liberal in the world, particularly when you consider that the Act replaced the State Secrets Act, sure, tidy it up for the political context (MMP does raise questions) but I don’t think there is a need to crucify officials for every word they write, particularly on live issues on which decision-makers have not yet considered the issue to a conclusion (within reason of course).

    Remember, these are documents TO the Minister and while they belong to that Minister, of any documents produced, these are among those most clearly advising as opposed to responding.