Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Paula Bennett and transparency

Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett, is obviously attempting to stir up anger about the welfare system to make National's fiddling reforms more palatable to the voters. Lead stories in The Press, DomPost and The NZ Herald are designed to do exactly that.

The Press describes a couple who have been on benefits since 1984 and have claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

OK. So why aren't we told how many others have been on benefits since 1984 or earlier? My repeated attempts to source such information are refused because readily accessible information is only available for the period post-1996 and to provide you with this information officials would have to generate new reports based on raw data. Bugger off.

The NZ Herald describes how recipients of very large sums are looking after other people's children.

Are people going to be surprised that beneficiaries are being paid to look after other people's children? I am only surprised that some information has been released. Because whenever I have tried to put parameters on the number, again, my OIA requests are refused. Specifically;

The information you have requested is not held by the Ministry. In order to add a dependent child to a main benefit, the Ministry needs to know that the child is dependent on the caregiver, not the specific nature of the relationship between the child and their caregiver.... to provide you with this information officials would have to generate new reports based on raw data...
Bugger off.

Ms Bennett has access to individual records and the staff to interrogate them. And while these stories of individual circumstances are very titillating they give bureaucrats and political defenders of the system an out. These cases are not representative, they will say. They form a tiny minority. They are the price we pay for having a caring and decent welfare state.


"....the welfare system should be open and transparent," she [Paula Bennett] said.

In which case, why are OIA requests constantly refused?

Here is a prime example from this week.

Earlier this year a reader shared with me a letter she received from Ms Bennett which said;

You might be interested to know that the vast majority of DPB recipients are in fact sole parents who have been married or in a relationship and who have lost the support of their husbands or partners for a variety of reasons.

So I asked the Ministry:

Of those single parents currently receiving the DPB, what was their relationship status at the time they applied for their current payment?

I was told they would have been single at the time of the application. My question was misinterpreted. In the past Social Reports have included 'relationship status' as divorced, separated, separated from a de facto, etc so I challenged their answer. Here is their further response;

With regards to your other question on the reporting of the relationship status of single parents currently receiving the DPB, up until 2000 the Ministry included data on the relationship status of clients at the time they were granted Domestic Purposes Benefit in the Statistical Report. However since 2000 this information has not formed part of the Ministry's formal reporting and has not been reported on since 2003. As you are aware the Ministry is not required under the Official Information Act 1982 to create information in order to meet the specific requirements of an individual request. For this reason your request for this information was declined under section 18(e) of the Act.

Do you see the significance of this? There is no tracking of the relationship trends that lead women to the DPB. So there is no monitoring of the effect of this particular social policy on relationship formation and breakdown.

And tell me this. How does Paula Bennett know "the vast majority of DPB recipients are in fact sole parents who have been married or in a relationship..." if her Ministry isn't reporting on it?

Policy will not be reformed on the behavioural response of a few selected cases. Policy is changed based on long term negative or positive trends in behavioural response. In New Zealand the transparency of data has degenerated. Information available in other jurisdictions has no equivalent in this country. Probably the main reason the US led with welfare reform was their willingness to track and study what the data was telling them. Big picture data may not be as sexy as gang associates buying wheels for their late model cars with taxpayer money, but it will create the impetus for wider and abiding change.

(Afterthought; It may be, and I hope it is, that Paula Bennett is being as frustrated in her attempts to achieve transparency as I am. An end of year report card in yesterday's Dominion Post said that she was turning over a lot of staff. Maybe the old iron triangle is at play.)


Shem Banbury said...

Being down here on holiday I picked up and read the Press with interest this morning, after seeing the front page.

what gets me is the 'Harris Gang' is a well known criminal gang in chch with links to drugs etc. How does someone like this get a benefit or why aren't there red flags when they attempt to get more money.

The guy had successful applications for new tyres on his care and fence around his pool!!! What has the world come to when we give money to these kinds of people.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Ozy, The basic lifeblood of criminals is the benefit system. In 2008 over 3,000 working age people had benefits cancelled to go to prison and a similar number had benefits re-instated on release from prison. The Harris' are not an isolated case in terms of criminality.

Lucia Maria said...


I am amazed that it is "difficult" to access old information.

I've worked with large databases in my time, and everytime I converted a company's computer system, converting the data to the new system was part of the quote (caused a lot of late nights, especially one weekend when I was heavily pregnant).

It sounds to me that the unemployment & welfare data that existed in the 80's and early 90's has not been converted to whatever is being used now. Hopefully they still have it somewhere, because it wouldn't be too hard to import it - that used to be my specialty. But there needs to be political will for that to happen.

And generating new reports on raw data is dead easy, once it's in the same format that the new data on the current system is in.

Seriously. I used to do that sort of thing, too.

Computer systems can't have gone backwards over the last couple of decades.

Anonymous said...

Finally someone who can see the truth of the actions, thank you Lindsay Mitchell.... how interesting that the "facts" as reported can't be substaniated with the raw data. Smoke and mirrors. If the aticle is not inflamatory then it's not news so the "facts" don't really matter, sadly the media, in all forms have declined into trawling personal lives and gutter gossip but call it news - Thank you again for some reality all at the hands of the politicans.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't the media investigate Paula Bennetts daughter who's on the DPB - wasn't her daughters criminal boyfriend living there too - on the dole.... like mother like daughter, so what power trip will she end up on once she's finished on the DPB. Transparency - BS!!! and if the Harris family are so bad why aren't they in prison, the newsparer are trading off very old history, wasn't this the same story around Christmas 2008 - boring -

Anonymous said...

Paula Bully Bennett strikes again. What was the real reason for the story. Was the story about benefit system or was it to crucify the Harris family again. They won't change because no one will let them change. The benefit system is already hard enough. If this is Bully Bennetts way of making welfare changes acceptible then the only ones that will suffer are the frail the elderly and the children.