Monday 4 November 2019

Data preservation?

Is there any requirement that public agencies not have data destroyed?

Ages back, I'd put in an OIA request of IRD looking for the tax polling data that they had commissioned. If you'll recall, IRD was accused of partisanship when it had Colmar Brunton run some polls on public views on different taxes, and the polling included some political identification questions for the respondents.

I never bought that there was any partisan purpose to the polling - IRD has good reason to want to know attitudes to tax. And political identification questions could simply be part of the standard battery of questions provided in the baseline poll that IRD's questions were added to.

So I OIAed for that underlying data, figuring that the data's being public would mitigate any worries about partisan use of the data, and that the data would also be interesting for others. I'd have been keen to see how support for capital gains taxes played out.

I made my OIA request on 12 February. On 12 March, IRD refused the request. They noted that polled individuals were given assurances that their data would be kept secret. So that made it important for the integrity of the tax system that the individual-level data be withheld. I went to the Ombudsman, wondering whether Ministries could get around the OIA by providing assurances to people in meetings, for example, that notes or recollections from those meetings would be kept secret.

Anyway, that Ombudsman process has been going on for months. But on Friday (1 November), I got a letter from IRD saying they'd given me the wrong grounds for refusing the request. They'd requested that Colmar Brunton destroy the data on 9 February.

We knew, from the SSC report of July, that IRD had made that request of Colmar Brunton; I'd assumed that IRD continued to hold its own copy of the data because they'd refused to give it to me. I presume that Friday's letter means that IRD requested the destruction of the only copy of the data.

I've followed up with the Ombudsman's office asking whether there's any public records requirements that Ministries and agencies like IRD preserve data like this rather than destroying it when media starts calling. Recall that IRD started getting media calls on the polling (from the SSC report) on 5 February, and was interviewed about it by the Fairfax papers on 7-8 February. They requested the data's destruction on 9 February.

It would seem a bit off if it were possible to avoid OIA requests by preemptive data destruction.


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