Government’s big data backdown

The Government’s social investment approach has been under pressure following a string of blunders by MSD. Now, the new fix-it Minister has been called in to help get things back on track.

NGOs across the country can breathe a little easier after confirmation their government funding will be arriving as usual.

Organisations which help some of the country’s most vulnerable people had been blindsided after being told they would be required to hand over their client’s personal information in exchange for the money.

This left many uncomfortable and after the Privacy Commissioner was informed, he launched an investigation.

In early April that report was released, and sparked an extraordinarily bad few weeks for the government’s big data approach.

In his report, Privacy Commissioner John Edwards identified a litany of problems with MSD’s actions.

There had been little or no analysis of the impact of the policy, the security of the data was of concern, and neither a promised Privacy Impact Assessment nor a Security Risk Assessment had been finished.

At the same time, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley was forced to announce a gaping privacy hole had indeed been discovered in the computer portal set up by MSD to collect the data.

One NGO discovered that, while uploading their files, they could view another provider’s folder.

The system was immediately shut down but the mistake left the Minister fuming.

She ordered an independent review, which found MSD had paid little more than lip-service to privacy when setting up the system.

After the dust settled, MSD’s deputy chief executive Murray Edridge had stepped down.

Following a hectic six weeks, it was little surprise when the government announced on Wednesday that it was deferring the requirement for NGOs to hand over client data until a more robust system was in place.

Provider’s will receive their money for the 2016/2017 financial year as before, something Women’s Refuge chief executive Ang Jury told Newsroom will be of relief to many.

“I certainly wasn’t looking forward to July 1, put it that way. This is a good thing for us, for all providers.”

The Social Investment Agency, a standalone group created in April to replace a similar unit within MSD, will now lead a working party to talk with providers about how to gather the data in an appropriate manner.

This means Social Investment Minister Amy Adams will play a more involved role and it’s hard not to be reminded of another recent event where she was parachuted in to assist Nick Smith with the housing portfolio.

Adams has become Prime Minister Bill English’s right-hand woman on social investment, an approach he has long championed.

The Government has already announced it will spend $321 million over the next four years on a social investment package, but Adams said this announcement would not change that as most of the spending was based on anonymised data.

She would not speak for MSD about whether the process had been a shambles, but admitted that trust was critical in the process.

“Most of the NGOs that we’ve been talking to understand there’s some real value in good data use and see it as a two-way value proposition.

“It’s not just about what the Government can get from that data, but NGOs have a lot of benefit to get from that. Most of them want to work with us, but they want us to work very carefully so we set those parameters in the right place.”

Social Investment Minister Amy Adams has been heavily involved in the Government's data approach. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Labour was quick to label the backdown embarrassing, but unless National lose September’s election the approach is unlikely to change.

Edwards, who is supportive of the use of data to target funding when done under the right circumstances, said the announced consultation was something that should have happened from the outset.

“I think it kind of shows what can happen when you rush things and cut corners…with these kinds of things you’ve got to get buy-in and what we saw when we reviewed the process was the Ministry told these non-government organisations and they had what they characterised as consultation, but that just involved going and telling them again that was going to happen so there wasn’t two-way engagement.”

“One of the things I said when I had an early conversation with the Minister about this was ‘yes, of course $330m is a lot of money and you’ve got every right to check that it’s being spent appropriately and getting the results that you want, but in fact $330m is a drop in the bucket when you consider the Government’s ambitions for this social investment approach, so why rush it?’”

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