Stonewalled by the Powerball: Open your books, Lotto

Dr Greg Treadwell and Dr Tara Ross wanted to get some stats about the growth and impact of Lotto in NZ. Four years of road blocks, bills, and dealing with the Ombudsman and they're no closer to telling that story. 

With more than 1500 outlets around the country, Lotto NZ is the single biggest retail network in New Zealand, and its turnover is huge. In the year to June 2019 it made almost $1.18 billion in sales. 

Given the sums of money involved – and the sheer reach of state-run gambling – we wanted to look more closely at Lotto NZ’s operation. In a collaboration between AUT and the University of Canterbury journalism programmes, and with partners from the US, we attempted to map Lotto NZ’s growth and impact.

We were particularly interested in analysing which areas of the country had the largest growth in Lotto outlets (our US partners had found in their study, for instance, that the biggest growth in their region had been in poor communities of colour). We were also interested in measuring the extent to which lotteries money was being disbursed back to the communities that spent it. How much were the communities that spent the most on lottery products getting back from the NZ Lottery Grants Board?

As such, we asked Lotto NZ for a range of data – and they gave us some. With the data we were given, our students were able to show that the number of places to purchase Lottery tickets grew by more than 25 percent in the four years from 2010 to 2014. Kiwis can now buy lottery products in Countdown supermarket checkouts, at Z petrol station counters, as well as online and via Lotto NZ’s mobile app. Perhaps not surprisingly, the amount we’re spending on Lotto products has increased significantly, jumping from almost $989m in 2014 to $1,175m in 2018/2019. Our students’ research also suggested that New Zealand’s poorest electorates tended to have the highest concentration of Lotto outlets (but we needed more granular data to see if more outlets meant more sales).

The data we really wanted – a breakdown of Lotto NZ sales by location – was refused, initially on commercial sensitivity grounds. After complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman, and much to-ing and fro-ing, we were told variously that Lotto NZ’s data was not held in the format we’d asked for, that it was too much work to collate and, finally, that we could have information broken down by postcode, but only for half of the country’s post-code areas (those where there were more than one or two Lotto outlets) and only if we paid more than $1100 for the information. We don’t think that’s good enough for a public organisation that claims to be doing good work for New Zealand’s communities. 

We simply wanted figures that would help us understand from where Lotto NZ draws its income so that we can discuss its impact on communities. Given the well-known dangers of gambling and the increasing reach of Lotto NZ’s products, it seems extraordinary that Lotto NZ doesn’t already provide that information as an act of public accountability. If there is a cost to crunching that data, we don’t agree that the costs of such transparency should be borne by our universities or us as individual researchers.

Indeed, we take issue with how reluctant Lotto NZ has been to provide information. In our original 2015 Official Information Act request, we also asked for minutes from the Lotto NZ Board’s meetings and were surprised to be, initially, refused. After some to-ing and fro-ing, we were provided one year’s board minutes (but not the four years’ worth we had asked for) and, much later, an agreement to provide more board minutes, but at a cost of $1444. We fought the imposition of a fee (again through the Office of the Ombudsman) for almost two years, and in May, more than four years after initially asking for information, were finally provided a redacted copy of the Lotto NZ Board minutes for 2015 to 2017.

Why, we have to ask, has it been so difficult to get what is arguably straightforward information from Lotto NZ? The principles of open government surely dictate greater transparency. Add to that the large sums of money and potential adverse social outcomes at stake here (our students interviewed community leaders who were concerned at the amount being spent every week on Lotto by their community members), and there’s an even greater case for openness. Lotto NZ’s 2018 annual report talks about increasing demand – and sales – partly by connecting with people on an emotional level: “Every New Zealander who has ever bought a Lotto ticket has played an important role in helping to build strong, sustainable communities, and the ability to make people feel good about playing our games through an appreciation of where funding goes cannot be overstated.” 

If Lotto NZ really wants us to appreciate its work, it should open its books. Show us which communities spend most on their ever-increasing array of lottery games and which communities benefit most from its grants. Because, after four years of wrangling with Lotto NZ, via OIA requests and appeals to the Ombudsman’s office, we still can’t tell that story.

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