Government needs more hard-hitting advice: Minister

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says public servants should provide more candid advice to the Government, encouraging ministers to “embrace disagreement” in the name of better policy.

Hipkins has also conceded the withholding provisions of the Official Information Act are overused - but noted the tension between greater transparency and the provision of “free and frank” advice.

Appearing before Parliament’s governance and administration committee, Hipkins said one of his priorities was improving the quality of free and frank advice to ministers.

“That means embracing a bit of disagreement from time to time - I think we should see disagreement and robust testing of advice as a positive element.”

Part of the challenge was encouraging public servants to provide more candid advice about the decisions the Government had to make, even if ministers ultimately disagreed with their recommendations.

“Even if at the end of the day I reject the advice I’m given, I think I’d make a better decision for being properly informed than if I was making that decision in ignorance.”

“Ministers aren’t mushrooms, they shouldn’t be kept in the dark.”

While there were valid reasons to withhold free and frank advice while decisions were still being considered, Hipkins said once a call was made it was often right to then release the information no matter what the decision.

“A minister who is a competent minister should be able to explain why they chose one course of action but not another, and if they got advice to the contrary then they need to explain ... why they chose a different course of action.”

The public service had an obligation to keep the Government well-informed of both good and bad news on a no-surprises basis, he said.

“Ministers aren’t mushrooms, they shouldn’t be kept in the dark.”

The issue of free and frank advice was addressed by Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet chief executive Andrew Kibblewhite in a recent co-authored piece in the Policy Quarterly journal.

“Advice does not occur in a vacuum, and at times public servants can be affected by the extent to which they can rely on their candid advice remaining confidential."

Kibblewhite said public servants had a duty to offer “hard-hitting advice to the government of the day” about problems with policy, but needed greater certainty about the circumstances under which that information could be kept confidential.

“Advice does not occur in a vacuum, and at times public servants can be affected by the extent to which they can rely on their candid advice remaining confidential, particularly where they are expressing different views from those of the Government,” he said.

Research from 2007 indicated blunt advice was offered less easily, with written documents “tending to stick to the safe middle ground” and officials working on sensitive issues often avoiding the creation of a paper trail.

Boshier said discussion and advice at a very early stage, including exploratory or “deliberately provocative” information, should be protected from disclosure to avoid undermining the decision-making process.

As the policy process advanced, the public’s right to know should weigh more heavily, he said.

OIA withholding 'overused'

Hipkins also faced questions from MPs about the Government’s commitment to transparency, after Justice Minister Andrew Little ruled out a review of the OIA.

“There are grounds within the act for not releasing information: I think that sometimes they’re a bit overused, generally speaking I personally favour more disclosure than withholding,” Hipkins said.

Different ministers were at different stages when it came to open and transparent government, he said.

He required official advice to come with a recommendation as to whether it should be released immediately, at a later date or not at all, “as if it had been requested under the OIA”.

“I’d love to get everyone there - I have found that actually it reduces the amount of work that I need to do, because what will happen if you make all those decisions and then three months later someone requests it under the OIA, you find yourself reading it all again to see what’s going to be released, whereas if you do it the first time you’re actually only having to handle it once.”

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