On Monday a fellow Taxpayers' Union board member and I spent a fascinating morning with a group of academics, middle level public servants and representatives of NGOs responding to a request for our views about 'open government'. Sounded interesting; well yes, but it turned out to be a quick fire consultation about how the government could fulfil its requirement to report progress of open government to some international body and agreement it signed up to.
The report is due by the end of July and along with some discussions on Loomio this meeting seemed to be about the sum total of consultation on the matter. This is deeply ironic given that some of the values of open government are that consultation should be timely, appropriate and that there is enough time taken for interested parties to discuss and debate their positions and learn about the positions of others. The session was very top down. The first question as whether a bunch of documents, variously called Better Public Services, ICT Strategy and Action Plan and the National Integrity System, were an appropriate starting point. They probably were, given that there was really no other obvious starting point.
But the real agenda quickly became apparent when those attending said plainly and simply that making data available wasn’t actually the most important part of open government. Nor was enabling citizens to transact with government agencies (renewing their car registration, applying for a passport, and the like) really anything about more democracy – welcome though such initiatives were.
Officials looked a bit disconcerted and chagrined. This wasn’t going according to plan. Their primary interest was finding something meaningful to report and preferably with enough of patina of consultation to enable them to say that this was a consensus view from societal groups and not simply the view of officials. The participants, mainly Wellington based policy wonks and advisors, well understood the game and worked to fulfil their needs.
However the discussion was constructive and useful. There was clear consensus about
· Reviewing the Official Information Act to reduce delays and obstruction
· Publishing Best Practice guideline on public consultation
· Defining and codifying “accountability” and responsibility” in the public sector, consistent with the ability of officials to give quality advice
· Giving the responsibility for open government to a single agency.
For what it’s worth the Taxpayers' Union view of accountability (or responsibility) revolves around being able to find out who made which decision, when and why, seeking to achieve which specified objectives, based on what evidence and costs, knowing that the evidence and costs were themselves robust, and when the programme or activity has been implemented being able to find what results were achieved, and where these results were short or astray from the original objectives what will be done about it, by whom and when.
We believe that it is far too difficult to find out how well (or badly) taxpayers money was spend by government, and that goals such as transparency and accountability needed to be strengthened by coherent actions which match results against objectives and count achievements against costs.
Finally a couple of examples of bureaucratic jargon to round out the day: My two favourites were:
“We need to systematise our learnings here and develop some protocols around them.” And this little gem of positive sounding word smithing; “develop” became “develop a strategy to strengthen”. Of such debates is a day of discussion in Wellington composed.
This morning's Herald on Sunday carries a story on bonus for Parliament's unionists:
The agency in charge of parliamentary staff has agreed to a cash bonus for union members, despite John Key's National Party previously denouncing such deals as discriminatory.
An email obtained by the Herald on Sunday shows union members will receive a one-off, $1000 bonus from the Parliamentary Service - double the amount non-union members will get.
During the Helen Clark Labour administration, union staff once landed an $800 bonus. Act and National blasted the pay-off then, calling it "corrupt" and accusing Labour of cronyism.
Despite that this is union welfare and a political subsidy for the left goes on. We know of parliamentary staff who feel uncomfortable with the pressure and financial incentive from the Parliamentary Service to join a union.
The Government should scrap these kinds of deals. It made sense that the Labour Party would want to ensure its trade union donors are well funded. The fact it is continuing under National is outrageous.The email the Herald on Sundays refers to was sent through to our tip line last week. Click "continue reading" to view.
I take my hat off to Lydia Ko. A young women with an impressive talent and no doubt a bright career ahead. New Zealanders can rightly take pride in her accomplishments. But why does taxpayer funding necessary follow pride?
This morning’s Dominion Post reports:
Golfer Lydia Ko is asking for more taxpayer support since turning pro than she received when she was an amateur.
The 16-year-old prodigy can now reap big financial rewards from professional tournaments, as well as millions in management contracts and endorsement deals.
She pocketed NZ$181,000 for winning the Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters tournament in Taiwan last year and so far this year has collected more than $280,000 in winnings.
As an amateur, she received $115,000 from High Performance Sport NZ in 2012 and $185,000 last year, chief executive Alex Baumann said.
New Zealand Golf's application for this year is for $208,000 to pay for her coaching, physiotherapy and mental skills training.
Golf is one of the richest sports in the world. Why should kiwi taxpayers, most of whom earn less than Ms Ko, subsidise someone earning hundreds of thousands?
NZ Golf chief executive Dean Murphy said that, despite Ko's new professional status, the funding was still necessary, and the application was lodged while she was still an amateur.
Murphy noted it was common for professional athletes to receive taxpayer funding and he believed the opportunity to make money in a particular sport should not be a major consideration in an application. "If a [golf] player plays really well and wins a lot of tournaments, then it can be [lucrative] but the reality is even the very best players don't win all the time." Read more.
Surely the test is whether the particular person can support themselves otherwise isn't is just a bonus. Under NZ Mr Murphy's approach, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Scott Dixon would qualify for a taxpayer funded top-up.
We hope that Mr Murphy's comments do not represent the view of NZ Golf. Taxpayer funding should focus on fostering talent, not subsidising professionals already earning hundreds of thousands and receiving generous amounts from corporate sponsors.
Hiring sports people to be “ambassadors” for the country and to do various kinds of promotional work we think is fine. That’s a fee for service. But we can't see what the taxpayer gets here. The money seems to simply support a sportswomen's career - shouldn't that be her own responsibility?
Being involved in political activity makes it tempting to comment on each and every movement in the political dimension. Early on, the Taxpayers’ Union decided that it would focus on instances of waste and extravagance in central and local government spending, and on cases where spending had clearly not achieved its purpose.
Hence we criticised Tony Marriott of the Christchurch City Council for charging a visit to Hooters’ Bar to his council funded credit card. And we decried Transpower for spending over a million dollars on a swept up cafeteria in its building for staff when there are plenty of cafes within easy walking distance.
We also decided that, generally speaking, we would not go after what politicians’ poor performance, bad decisions, and questionable judgements unless there were circumstances to justify our intervention. Much of that is partisan debate and we were simply not going to get involved in every public issue, particularly when there were plenty of others making the same points as we would make.
Yes, that makes us look selective in our criticism, but we have taken on Peter Dunne over the cost of passports, and Len Brown over Auckland’s debt burden. We were also quick to point out that Hekia Parata’s inquiry into the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust asked questions about the wrong body, but we have stood back from the row over Judith Collin’s trip to China.
In the first matter large sums of public money are involved and the misuse of funds is alleged. In the second, the cost of the Collins trip is not large, and her “crime” is not about the misuse of money. It may be a fine distinction, particularly for those who wish to attack us for existing at all, but it is a real one.
Contributors to our blog pages and tip line are constantly urging us to get involved in issues, whether it’s the funding of programmes promoting recreation and sport, the operation of the ACC scheme, the worth of the defence forces, or whatever else is on their minds. We would love to be able to question policy matters, and to test whether a wide range of policies actually deliver on their objectives and represent value for taxpayers’ money.
It’s early days. We only launched in October and we are still reliant to a large degree on volunteer time. Because of that we’re focused on exposing instances of clearly bad, mad and wasted spending - until we have built up our resources to do more. Our record shows that we’re not favouring one party or another. For example, our exposé of the DOC IT cost blowout is precisely why we were established.
Waste and poor spending are our targets, not people and or partisanship.
Chair, New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union
You may recall that back in October, allegations of misspending within the commercial arm of the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust came to light as a result of an exposé by Maori TV’s Native Affairs programme. Allegations included a staff member spending Kohanga Reo funds on a wedding dress, a separate Trelise Cooper dress, a 21st birthday present and a $1000 cash withdrawal from a BP station as koha for a tangi which she did not attend.
The Minister of Education and her Associate Minister hastily called a press conference last night and released the report by accounting firm EY. The Dominion Post held their front page and led with the story this morning.
Kohanga Reo probe avoids key claims
The Government is dodging questions about allegations of misspending by a company linked to Kohanga Reo after a press conference tonight where it claimed the firm had been cleared – before admitting none of the claims sparking its inquiry were investigated.
After holding on to an audit report for a week, Education Minister Hekia Parata tonight called an urgent press conference for 8pm with just over an hour’s notice to announce the Kohanga Reo National Trust had been cleared of any wrongdoing - though the report by Ernst & Young raised questions about the processes surrounding a $50,000 koha payment to an unnamed recipient, and credit card controls.
But under questioning Parata and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples confirmed none of the original allegations surrounding spending by the trust's commercial arm Te Pataka Ohanga were investigated. Read more.
That’s right. The Ministry commissioned EY to do a report that doesn’t cover the key allegations!
So why is the Minister telling the public that the Kohanga Reo National Trust has been cleared? You’ll need to bear with us here. The National Trust receives around $90million funding per year from the Government which is transferred to the individual kohanga reo. Each kōhanga reo then contracts a company called Te Pataka Ohanga for various services such as insurance, IT and property loans.
Te Pataka Ohanga is a subsidiary of the National Trust.
Amazingly, because it is a subsidiary, and because the taxpayer money flows through the individual kohanga reo, the Ministers are saying that Te Pataka Ohanga cannot be examined and argue that it is not public money.
In the last few hours Fairfax has picked up the Taxpayers' Union press release on that point:
Kohanga Reo audit a ‘whitewash'
Parata said it was a private organisation so outside the Government's scope - although it was later confirmed TPO ultimately received its funding through the Ministry of Education.
Jordan Williams, executive director of the Taxpayers' Union, today called the late-night press conference and "mischaracterisation" of the report "shameful" as it ignored the key allegations around the personal use of company credit cards.
"The Ernst Young review did not even look at the key allegations at Te Pataka Ohanga," he said.
"It's not vindication, it's a whitewash."
Williams asked what other publicly funded entity could avoid audit scrutiny by creating a subsidiary company.
"If this attitude was the norm, the public audit process would be meaningless," he said.
"Instead of getting to the bottom of the allegations, Hekia Parata and Dr Pita Sharples have chosen to turn a blind eye to what are serious allegations."
Labour's Nanaia Mahuta said given the seriousness of the allegations it was "inadequate" for Parata to say she had no oversight of TPO.
"The reality is that public monies are transferred from the Kohanga Reo Trust to Te Pataka Ohanga and there should be a line of sight to ensure that the money is spent properly and that there's a level of transparency and accountability for that.” Read more.
The Prime Minister has announced an election date of 20 September.
The role of the Taxpayers' Union through the next 194 days is to make sure politicians are promising value for money - and not vote buying through pork barrel politics and government waste.
Without fear or favour, we intend to critique the various promises made with taxpayers' money as well as fight policies that will increase the overall tax burden faced by kiwi households.
If you've not already joined our campaign, you can do so here. It's going to be a lot of fun.
On reflection, I wonder why an MP from a party that prides itself for having a low environmental footprint choose to fly to a radio interview that could have been done on Skype. Perhaps Ms Mathers had other engagements in Masterton. If so, that was not the information provided to me at the time by the Herald reporter.