When Bill English tried to get the Wellington bureaucracy to buy into his big data-driven social investment initiatives there was the usual inertia.

It wasn’t until the tail-end of the National-led administration that there seemed to be real buy-in from the public service as the benefits of mining massive data sets for useful tidbits became apparent.

One of the more disconcerting elements of that buy-in was the shift in rhetoric away from treating that data mining as an indicator in formulating policy to it being a predictor of behaviour as if Minority Report-style predetermination was a real thing.

That coincided with a deeply uncomfortable increase in information-sharing across government departments as politicians bought into the idea that people want a single point of contact and aren’t overly bothered by different departments having access to their personal interactions, irrespective of whether that agency has a rubbish – or impeccable – record of protecting people’s privacy.

David Clark wants to take that to a new level in a legislative rewrite of the Statistics Act 1975.

In essence, the rewrite of the law would see Statistics New Zealand rely more heavily on the administrative information collected by other agencies in forming official statistics, which in turn could then be used for approved research to feed into policy formation.

For Clark, it ticks a box with his digital economy hat on, with opening up access to data seen as adding between 1% and 2.5% to gross domestic product. In fact, Clark was handed the stats portfolio to sit alongside his digital economy and communications ones.

All aboard

The Data and Statistics Bill passed its first reading unanimously in November in what MPs saw as an uncontentious piece of legislation to modernise a 47-year-old act.

Sound tickety-boo?

Not so much if submissions on the bill are anything to go by.

The most strident came from the Council for Civil Liberties, whose deputy chair Andrew Ecclestone described the legislation as tapping into the philosophy of data-miners Facebook and Google to exploit people’s information.

“This bill attempts to entrench that Silicon Valley surveillance capitalism model inside the New Zealand government,” he told Parliament’s governance and administration last week.

Don’t be fooled by the council’s name, it’s not an extreme libertarian think-tank hellbent on setting up seasteads in international waters, rather it tends to take a very deliberate approach in seeking to preserve human rights and civil liberties.

The council wants the bill withdrawn and submitted as a draft for wider consultation before work resumes, with Eccleston identifying many of the problems coming from the process rather than the intent – it captures the offices of the auditor general and ombudsman much to their respective chagrin.

A big issue for the council is the use of administrative data collected for one function then repurposed and interpreted for something else. As another submitter – IT veteran Stephen Judd – pointed out, bad outcomes can occur when data collected for one purpose is pressed into the service of another.

Reasonable dissent

If that’s not enough to have policymakers reflect, hopefully, former government statistician Len Cook will.

He also wants the bill withdrawn for wider consultation, warning that as written it waters down the focus of the statistician, shifts the balance of the agency to one of being a research centre for policy agencies rather than for official statistics, and dilutes the obligations to protect confidentiality.

He’s wary of using administrative data instead of statistical surveys, telling MPs admin records collect information from the point of view of the government rather than citizens and can crowd out the context of contemporary issues.

“The bill’s misunderstanding the importance of statistical surveys ignores the range of information about family structure and dynamics and other complex units in society such as whanau that is poorly estimated from administrative records, if at all,” Cook wrote.

That’s not to say that the law doesn’t need a refresh and there’s much to like in the direction of travel officials and the minister want to take.

It’s just that it seems underdone and too eager to cash in on the big data drive that was all the rage a few years ago in the private sector.

This is surprising given the really interesting work Stats NZ enables through the Integrated Data Infrastructure, a data lab that operates under the very strict oversight of staff who fully buy into the agency’s strong culture of protecting confidentiality.

If the government wants to go on a data grab, it should be more transparent about the extent of the changes it wants to make, because the nation has just gone through a period of accepting massive restrictions and sharing far more information than ever before.

That information has been used for its original intention so far, but it won’t vanish once the pandemic’s done, and you can be sure the likes of wage subsidy applications will find their way into some kind of dataset in the fullness of time.

Lucky for us the government only has our wellbeing at heart and we love Big Brother.