Heather Roy

18 April 2018

There’s a lot of talk about transparency these days, especially in political circles. I think we’ve lost track of what transparency actually means. It’s become a buzzword and something of a whipping tool, in part because it is hard to quantify. Is a little transparency okay or do we need to know every last detail for something to be easy to perceive or detect? No easy answers here.

But I do know this. It’s easy to talk about political transparency – or lack thereof – in opposition. It’s much harder to ‘live’ transparency when in government. There is sometimes good reason not to divulge policy initiatives and work, especially in the early stages. But initiatives are best developed when they are exposed to many rather than a few. In reality there aren’t many rational reasons to hide things. Lack of transparency is often linked to political expediency.

In the past week there have been two announcements that will help shed light on how our government agencies are operating. We, the public, are much better informed as a result. In a healthy democracy this transparency is important.

Who Guards the Guards? Regulatory Governance in New Zealand was published by independent Think Tank, the New Zealand Initiative last week. It focuses on confidence in and respect of our regulators:

“Poor decision-making by regulators can also be harmful if it stifles innovation. If businesses lack confidence in their regulators’ decision-making, this can cause both uncertainty and risk-aversion. The consequential impairment to economic efficiency increases costs, which may end up harming consumers through higher prices.”

The government would do well to listen.

The report was based on an in-depth survey of New Zealand’s top 200 companies and it tracked key performance indicators for 24 regulatory agencies.  The authors of the report noted:

  • many of New Zealand’s important regulators are performing poorly
  • there is “a direct link between how regulators are governed and how well they perform
  • a recommendation that “A clear separation between the executive and the board, which is the gold standard for corporate governance, should also become the norm for regulators.”

The second announcement that impressed me was the establishment of a reference group by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn.

The Inspector-General is the watch-dog of our security and intelligence agencies – the GCSB and the SIS. Her role is to review the issues of legality and propriety as set out in the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1996.  The Inspector-General assists the responsible Minister (Hon Andrew Little currently) to ensure the activities of the agencies comply with the law. She is also responsible for ensuring complaints relating to security and intelligence agencies are independently investigated.

Cheryl Gwyn, when announcing the reference group said “The Inspector-General stands in the shoes of the public: we try to ask what the public would ask”. She went on to say “The group brings together people from outside government and the intelligence community who can keep us in touch with legal, social and security developments in NZ and overseas, inform our thinking about our work programme, and provide feedback on how we are performing our oversight role.”

Some of the appointees to the reference group are controversial but I disagree with the critics of the inclusion of people like Nicky Hagar and Deborah Manning. I think the Inspector-General has gathered together a group with a diversity of views that are representative of the community in which we live. Simon Ewing-Jarvie has explained this well in his UNCLAS blog post.We should also note that this group isn’t an expert advisory panel, nor is it exposed to classified information.

In response to some of the questions and criticisms in the media and on social media, further explanation of the Inspector-General’s rationale has been released today.

So, my Transparency champions of the week are Roger Partridge (NZ Initiative) and Cheryl Gwyn. They deserve bouquets, not for talking transparency, but for leading by example.