Thursday 11 October 2018

A pretty lame OIA response

Back in September, the Ministry of Health's Chief Science Adviser produced some rather shoddy advice on the effects of sugar taxes.

Asked by the Prime Minister to provide advice on the effects of sugar taxes, Dr John Potter provided two pages of unreferenced bullet points, none of which mentioned the comprehensive literature review commissioned by the Ministry and released by the Ministry only a few days before Potter's list of bullet points.

So I OIAed the Ministry to find out what was up with that. Here's what I asked them.
Dear Ministry of Health,

I would like to know more about the process around your Chief Science Advisor’s advice to the Prime Minister regarding sugar taxes, a two-page list of bullet points dated 16 February 2018 and released recently to the New Zealand Herald.

I would like to know the following:
  1. Did any request from Sir Peter Gluckman’s office for that advice run through the Ministry of Health? If it did, please provide any documentation around it.
  2. Did Chief Science Advisor John Potter’s reply to Sir Peter’s office, addressed to the Prime Minister, run through any quality assurance process at the Ministry of Health? If so, please provide any documentation produced as part of that quality assurance process. 
  3. At what point did the Ministry of Health become aware that Dr Potter was producing this advice for the Prime Minister? How did it become aware that this advice was being produced?
  4. Please provide any documentation, including but not limited to internal emails, meeting notes, and recollections of relevant officials [particularly the economics team at the Ministry], of any discussions within the Ministry of Health about: 
    1. The quality of John Potter’s advice;
    2. That advice’s consistency with prior Ministry advice regarding sugar taxes;
    3. The process by which this advice was requested and produced.
  5. Does the Ministry of Health view it as appropriate that advice was provided to the Prime Minister on sugar taxes by the Ministry of Health’s Chief Science Advisor with no reference whatsoever to the work that the Ministry had received from NZIER in August 2017 and that the Ministry had released under the Official Information Act only 17 days prior to Potter’s note? Is this the kind of thing that the Ministry views as good practice and process? If not, what processes if any has the Ministry undertaken to ensure that advice produced by its Chief Science Advisor goes through any kind of quality assurance process?
The Ministry waited until today, the deadline for the request, to release the following. I will transcribe it below and then copy the image of it. It is absurdly lame.
I can advise that the request for advice was made directly to Professor Potter by the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor. Professor Potter prepared a succinct summary note in response. It was not intended as a stocktake of all available evidence.

The Ministry of Health became aware of Professor Potter's note on 20 August 2018 when the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet consulted us about its release under the Act. I have identified one email chain in scope of this part of your request. This is enclosed, with some material redacted under section 9(2)(a) of the Act to protect the privacy of natural persons.

At the time, officials recall that Professor Potter's note drew different conclusions about the benefits of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages from the study undertaken by NZIER. This is not unexpected as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is a contested area. The Ministry welcomes debate on these types of complex health issues, including the interpretation of evidence and best practice.

The role of the Chief Science Advisor is to provide independent comment and advice on matters related to the health and disability sector. The Ministry supports Professor Potter providing information and advice to a range of stakeholders in keeping with his role as Chief Science Advisor.

You have the right (etc Ombudsman boilerplate)....

The first the Ministry knew about Potter's note was when it was being released under OIA. MoH noticed that it varied from the advice the Ministry commissioned. But if the Chief Science Advisor chooses to ignore that report and produce a one-sided, distorted view of things for the Prime Minister's consumption, they seem cool with that.

How completely lame. Not sure why it took until the OIA deadline to produce this, but at least I got it.

The other attachment was an email trail of 15 August from DPMC to MOH noting the OIA request of Mr Nick Jones for "Copies of any report or advice received by the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, or the advisor them self, on a tax on sugar or sugary beverages." DPMC ran it by MoH to check if anything further should be withheld, and then by Prof Potter on 20 August. There's no point in copying it here as it adds nothing, but I'm happy to forward it on if anybody wants it.

I'm pretty sure that Potter would have seen the NZIER report before producing his bullet points, but I have another OIA request in now to confirm that.

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