Transparent public service remains a rarity

Research and change have been on my mind as I have blithered into the new year.

My study involved working my way steadily through two boxes of a famous brand of chocolates (hard work but somebody had to do it) trying to see how many of them I could recognise.

One temporary filling attached to large chunk of tooth later (after sucking on a soft centre - oh the ignominy!), I am still not sure.

What I do know is my enjoyment was spoiled by not being able to tell immediately what lay beneath the shiny wrappers.

I don't want to make it sound as if I spent my childhood endlessly eating chocolates - quite the contrary - but once I could have looked at each wrapper and known what to expect.

It is not that I am against change, but if it ain't broke. I would happily forgo chocolates this year, however, for one change - a commitment to openness by our public institutions.

Call me a flying pig fantasist, but I hope the ombudsman's recently announced review of Official Information Act (OIA) practices in the public sector will act as an impetus for this.

At the end of last year I was amazed when someone at the New Zealand Qualifications Authority told me he wanted to know exactly what I needed so the organisation could regularly produce it in a way which was useful.

Here was a man who knew the meaning of public servant.

Sadly, I found that startling. More often than not, requests for information involve obfuscation ping-pong.

Take my query last month about what has happened to the controversial idea of using predictive risk modelling (PRM) to help identify and assess children who might be at risk of abuse or neglect.

This would involve using data held on beneficiary families (though presumably not the vast number who receive Working for Families).

As the social sector forum's briefing to the incoming government puts it, the use of PRM in this way is ''untried, carries ethical risks, and warrants careful and staged development and trialling''.

But have we been hearing much about it? Put ''predictive risk modelling'' into the search on the Children's Action Plan website and it turns up nothing.

The last media story I could find on it was from 2012.

There was only one brief reference to it in last year's consultation document about information sharing around vulnerable children and their families. I thought it was time to know more so I asked the Ministry of Social Development for an update.

I was told that work was ''proceeding well, with the next steps in progressing predictive modelling under active consideration by the Vulnerable Children's Board and ministers, with decisions likely to be reached early in the New Year''.

When I suggested this response was so vague I could not make any sense of it and asked more questions, I was told that details of any item under active consideration were not released, including under the Official Information Act.

''The fact that decisions are expected to be reached in the New Year reflect the commitment to taking the time to getting any future direction for Predictive Modelling right. At this time further information will be made public.

''Open and transparent communication of Predictive Modelling and the Vulnerable Kid's [sic] Information system is vital and we are committed to this. The key is simply timing, which as we advised will be in the New Year.''

Somehow, this response ignored my questions around separate consideration of the ethical issues (proposed by the National Ethics Advisory Committee) and whether privacy impact assessments had been completed.

The briefing referred to earlier says a working group on PRM had ''identified'' a three-phase approach to testing and trialling. Phase one would be reported back to the Vulnerable Children's Board and preparations for phase two by last December. (Three cheers for open and transparent communication!)

Maybe PRM, used nowhere else in the world for this purpose, will turn out to be great at helping identify those at risk of harm and there will be all manner of ways to ensure beneficiaries are not stigmatised or the innocent badgered.

But shouldn't there have been more proactive communication with the public about this long before now? Research has been published, but how many read it?

Has anyone bothered to ask if we think the possible benefits outweigh the risks?

Concerns surrounding electronic information privacy, including access and the use of data, have received considerable public attention recently. All the more reason to keep people well-informed about projects such as PRM from the outset.

My fear is it will eventually be presented carefully packaged in a shiny wrapper and, like my chocolates, it may be too late to question any unpalatable surprises.

Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.

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