Tuesday, 23 July 2019

IRD polling and the Official Information Act - Updated

Back in February, Stuff reported on IRD's polling about attitudes to tax. The poll was controversial because it included questions on respondents' ideological self-identification.  

I never took the polling as having been undertaken with partisan intent - I'd thought that the left-right identification question came from the standard battery of questions included in that poll, with IRD's questions added to that battery. So I was rather more interested in IRD simply releasing that polling data to avoid any potential appearance of partisan advantage that might obtain if anyone expected the government had access to the poll data while the opposition did not - and because it would just be cool to have that data. You could imagine that, in the context of policy argument around capital gains taxes, polling data on tax attitudes combined with data on ideological affiliation would have partisan advantage; releasing the data to everyone would level any perceived tilt to the playing field.

Hamish Rutherford reports today on the SSC investigation into that polling work - and polling undertaken by DoC and even Stats that had the appearance of partisan effect. That SSC report is available here.

This part of Hamish's reporting now worries me:
In a statement, Commissioner of Inland revenue, Naomi Ferguson said the department "absolutely understands the principle of political neutrality".

IRD had instructed Colmar Brunton to delete the data on political learnings and not report on it, while Ferguson said no evidence of political motivation had been found. She had indicated she accepted the findings and recommendations of the SSC report.
On 12 February, I requested that data via an Official Information Act request. The information Hamish now reports destroyed - and almost certainly destroyed only after I made the request. Can they do that? [UPDATE: the request for data deletion was made more quickly than I made my OIA requests. See update at the end of the post. I'd thought that my request was very prompt on reporting having started on the issue; IRD requested deletion on 9 February.] 

Here's the trail.
IRD declined the request, citing its general rule that every single thing in the IRD building or that IRD has ever breathed upon counts as secret tax data - the release of which would imperil the administration of the tax system. It also cited assurances of secrecy provided to survey respondents. 


On 13 March, I asked the Ombudsman to review Deputy Commissioner Cunnington's decision. If IRD's position that an undertaking with survey participants was sufficient to block an OIA release, that could have interesting OIA implications. Every government meeting with anyone could begin with an undertaking that the results of the meeting would never be released to anyone. 


On 25 June, the Ombudsman's Office told me that they had received some relevant information and their investigation was continuing. I've not heard anything since then.

And, today, I find out via the Dom Post that IRD told Colmar Brunton to destroy the data that I have requested. I do not know whether IRD also destroyed its own copy.

Is it quite cricket to order the destruction of data that is under OIA request and Ombudsman investigation? Seems a bit ... peremptory.

I should follow up with the Ombudsman again.

UPDATE: The SSC report has the date of the request from IRD to Colmar Brunton as 9 February - so the request for deletion happened after media enquiries began but before my OIA request; I thought my OIA request was quicker off the draw than that. So at the point that IRD answered the request, they either still had their own copy of the data, or knew that the data no longer existed.


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