It must be that time of year again, when a journalist wakes up in the morning so concerned about government waste and secrecy they decide to ask government agencies how many official information requests your humble Taxpayers’ Union has been filing.
Yesterday we were contacted by the Department of Internal Affairs letting us know that Stuff.co.nz (we don’t know whether it’s one of their “public interest” taxpayer-funded journalists, or just one of their columnists) has requested a list of all our information requests dating back to November 2020. We assume this relates to our popular “Stop Three Waters” campaign which Stuff has, to date, decided not to cover (though, in fairness, considering Stuff’s obligations under the NZ on Air conditions of funding, that may be rational from the newsroom’s perspective).
But what we can’t work out is why Stuff didn’t come to us first? If the objective is to “expose” the Taxpayers’ Union for asking too many questions, why waste officials’ time by filing their own OIA, when they could have just asked us? Perhaps there is an element of self importance: it is a sad state of affairs that the Taxpayers’ Union files more information requests / asks more questions than any media or other transparency organisation. Indeed, in last two years of Labour’s opposition, our OIA and LGOIMA (the local government version of the Official Information Act) outnumbered the written and oral questions filed by the then-Opposition Labour Party.
And we make no apologies for it. We are, by far, New Zealand’s largest transparency organisation, and work on behalf of our 179,000 subscribed supporters, and tens of thousands of members and donors. Those supporters expect us to be asking the hard questions. Many of those requests result in stories that the media pick up (for obvious reasons), are used for tools such as our popular “Ratepayers’ Report” local government league tables, and serve to remind officials and politicians that we are watching how they are spending taxpayer money. There is an auditing role, asking questions traditionally asked by local newspapers, but which are often missed now that the media is under so much pressure. For example, we use the Official Information Act to verify stories received through our confidential government waste ‘tip line’ – as unlike for Stuff, the Government’s swelling communications departments are generally “too busy” to answer our questions.
Democracy and transparency do have a cost. That’s why we encourage public agencies to proactively release information – so that the OIAs are not required. But to criticise the media, or philanthropic groups exercising rights to promote transparency and accountability is wrong.
But in this case, we’ll make an exception: so for the Stuff journalist who asked for this information, whoever you are, next time don’t waste the time of officials – come to us direct. Here is the information sought:
1 November 2020 – present date – OIAs filed by the Taxpayers’ Union
[Support to foreign nationals in NZ during COVID]
1. Is the Department of Internal Affairs currently funding, or has it funded, in any way the Red Cross’ Manaaki Manuhiri program for foreign nationals stranded in New Zealand due to covid-19?
2. If so, how much funding has it given to the program since the beginning of 2020
[Ministerial travel expenses]
This is a request for official information under the Official Information Act 1982 in relation to the travel costs of the Minister David Parker.
We request the following information:
1. A breakdown of the cost of the Minister’s travel by means, i.e. air travel, car etcetera.
2. A breakdown of the cost of additional travel arrangements i.e. if the Minister were to have a car travel to meet him at his destination or require a driver to stay overnight in accommodation.
[Ministerial travel follow up request]
‘a basic list of dates wherein the Minister (Hon David Parker) had a driver travel between cities to meet him or had a driver stay overnight at a location for a similar purpose, rather than make use of hired transport at his destination, since 1 January 2019.’
[Expenditure of the Royal Commission into historical abuse in care]
We request a copy of the expenditure transactions since 1 January 2020 up until 31 December 2020 in relation to the following account codes:
Please exclude all payroll transactions except for the total amounts paid in each pay run*.
Please ensure the data extract includes:
1. the supplier / vendor / payee
2. the notation made in your accounting system
3. the transaction amount and date
4. the cost centre and general ledger assigned to the transaction.
Given the volume of information, we request it be made available in a suitable excel format. The above codes account for less than a third of those originally requested. I have also attached a response we received from the WAC to the same OIA as an example if you want one to refer to.
1. Please provide the research and researcher that has lead the Minister of local government to believe that her water infrastructure reform will generate lasting jobs
2. Please provide the research and researcher that has lead the Minister of local government to believe that her water infrastructure reform will generate savings
3. Do the predicted jobs generated by the reforms outweigh the jobs that will be lost to the reforms? Please provide the numbers to back this up.
4. What are the estimated costs of the reforms? Please provide any initial budgets.
5. Please provide the research and any cost/benefit analysis performed that lead to the conclusion that reform was needed/would be beneficial.
[Bolton Street property information]
1. A breakdown of the amount of months over the last four years that 23 Bolton street has been occupied
2. In the months it was occupied, how many people were residing at the property
3. The market price of 23 Bolton Street
4. The number of bedrooms and bathrooms in the property
[Advertising for three waters (follow up)]
A breakdown of the cost of the campaign currently running to advertise the three waters reforms. Please include both actual costs, estimated costs (those budgeted for but not yet realized) and the full budget
[Breakdown of advertising expenditure for Three Waters]
I request a breakdown of the $3.5 million by category / type of expenditure and communications channel. I.e. newspaper advertising, social media, television, radio spending – broken into production and advertising placement.
[Racing Safety Development Fund applications]
This is an OIA for the applications (both successful and unsuccessful) of applications from the last funding round, and a list of those which received funding (and respective amounts).
[Government logo rebrand]
It has been suggested to the Taxpayers' Union that there has been a change in the logo (or preferred logo) used to represent the New Zealand Government. I have attached the "old" and "new" versions.
• Has there been a change to (or is the Government in the process of changing) the official "New Zealand Government" logo?
• If so, who initiated such a change and for what reason?
• What costs have been incurred (and are expected to be incurred) because of the changed logo?
o This could include, for example, updated signage and stationery, along with administrative and design costs.
• If the logo change is part of a wider rebrand, please provide the costs for that wider rebrand.
Please feel free to call me if any part of this request requires clarification.
[Timeframes for translation services]
How many requests were made to the translate email address in the last 7 days? What was the average response time for them?
[Jacinda Ardern parody]
This is an OIA for all communications (specifically emails) in the last 2 weeks that mention “Spitting Image” or the video available here: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?ref=search&v=448438283127922 held by the respective agencies: Ministry of Health, DPMC, PMO, and DIA.
We are particularly interested in any communications with YouTube (or its representatives) about them hosting the same video (which has now been removed).
[Three Waters advisory group and advertising campaign]
This is an OIA regarding the “advisory group” referred to by a DIA spokesperson in this Stuff.co.nz article: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/125570991/governments-three-waters-advertisements-slap-in-the-face-for-councils
An advisory group, including members of the local government sector, were involved in the creation of the campaign.
Who is on the advisory group? When have they met? And how much are they being paid?
The article also refers to LGNZ expressing concerns about the advertising campaign prior to it launching. Please provide that corrispondance.
[Breakdown of furniture expenditure/purchases 2020/21]
Please provide a breakdown of all furniture expenses/purchases from the 2020/2021 financial year, and the current financial year to date.
Please also identify any furniture purchased for staff to use at home.
[Three waters correspondence and expenditure]
1. Any correspondence between the DIA and the Iwi Advisors Group for Freshwater in the past year.
2. Any correspondence between the DIA and the Waikato-Tainui Chief Executive in the past year.
3. Any payments or reimbursements made to any individuals from these two entities or to the entities themselves over the past two years.
4. The value and details of any such payment.
1. Any correspondence or plans to update or redesign the DIA website from the past two years.
2. When was the last time the website was redesigned and how much did this cost?
3. Any estimates DIA has received or communicated around the costs to update or redesign the website.
4. The costs of maintaining the current website.
[Salary band for named DIA employee]
Salary band/range for acting Executive Director, Three Waters Iwi/Māori Maria Nepia.
[Standard clause in public funding documents]
In a statement, the Department of Internal Affairs told Newshub "no clause in the Funding Agreement... prevents or prohibits any council from publicly expressing its own views".
On what basis is was that claim made? Who authorised that statement to be made? What is their name and position? Were they relying on legal advice in making that claim? If so, what is the date of that advice and how much did it cost?
The story goes on to say:
[DIA] adds: "It is a common and prudent clause in public funding documents as a safeguard to protect against the misuse of public funds."
Please provide other public funding documents where DIA has included this clause in the last 12 months?
1. How many calls have been made to the help desk on each day since 1 March 2022?
2. How many of these calls have connected to an operator?
3. How many of these calls have been dropped automatically due to call numbers exceeding capacity?
4. If any of the requested data is not recorded, please explain why not.
5. What is the capacity limit for calls to the help desk before calls are dropped automatically?
6. Do international charges apply to calls that are dropped automatically?
7. For the ‘Enquire online’ form, what is the average wait time between enquiries being filed and responses being sent, for the period since 1 March 2022?
8. Finally, I would appreciate any comment as to why capacity has not kept up with call/enquiry volumes, and whether this is a recent problem or an ongoing issue.
We’ve also emailed this information to Stuff, and in the spirit of transparency, have asked the company to please detail the OIAs filed with DIA by Stuff over the same time period. I will be tickled pink if we’ve managed to ask more.