Archive for ‘Public services’ Category

The EAB becomes the NAB.

datePosted on 19:03, March 19th, 2010 by Pablo

 It has recently been announced the the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) has become the National Assessment Bureau (NAB), combining external as well as internal intelligence assessments in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup (although I believe that the claim that the move was needed to better coordinate threat assessment for the World Cup is a bit specious, especially since the recommendation for an integration of internal and external intelligence assessment came from a report by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Simon Murdoch that was commissioned independently of the World Cup bid). There has long been dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination between New Zealand internal and external intelligence collection and analysis agencies (to say nothing of their professionalism and competence). Although there is a veritable alphabet soup of such agencies, there was until now no single unit that coordinated all of the intelligence flows into one coherent assessment brief for the PM. Some believe that this rendered the EAB ineffectual because it was a duplication of resources (since all of the operational agencies also have analytic branches that formulate their own assessments). Others simply claimed that it was a waste of space because PMs usually dealt directly with the operational agencies themselves (since the PM is also the Minister of Security and Intelligence). Thus the options were to disband the EAB or refocus it. The government has chosen the latter course.

The important thing to note is that the EAB/NAB is an analytic group located in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and is responsible for providing intelligence assessments for the PM.  It is not an intelligence-gathering (spy) agency even though it handles classified material. Yet, news that it has now assumed an internal focus along with its ongoing external assessment duties has alarmed civil libertarians and elements on the Left. The Greens put out a press release expressing concern over the move, with Keith Locke offering the humorous observation that the only area of growth in the public service seems to be the spy agencies.

Well, not quite. Although I respect Keith Locke’s position, I disagree that giving the revamped NAB an internal focus is a bad thing or that this reform signifies a growth of the spy apparatus. The NAB budget and those of the operational agencies have remained relatively consistent the last five years (after major increases post 9/11), and the NAB is not targeted to increase the number of personnel working within it (which means more responsibilities for the same number of people assigned to it). Hence all that has been done is to give the intelligence assessment unit with the PMs office access to more rounded intelligence streams from both internal and external security agencies so as to be able to better prepare unitary and coherent net security assessments for the PM. Before, the EAB only looked at foreign issues as fed to it by MFAT, the SIS, the GCSB, Customs, Immigration and the NZDF intelligence units. Now it will get streams from the Police, CTAG (Counter Terrorism Assessment Group, which is an inter-agency unit that does both internal and external terrorist assessment) and from the SIS/GCSB and the other mentioned agencies on internal issues of concern. That way the NAB can provide a more comprehensive picture of any given security matter to the PM, since often times threats have what is known as a “glocal” character–a mixture of global and local characteristics. Think organised crime and its potential nexus with terrorism….the “glocal” or “intermestic” overlap is broad and variegated

In a way the change makes the NAB the NZ equivalent of the US National Security Council (NSC)–the primary assessment agency working for the President/PM. It is an assessment unit, not an intelligence collection (operational) unit. It is full of analysts, not spies. With a 3 million dollar budget covering 30 people, it does not have the capacity to do anything other than read and assess what the operational branches provide them. From my perspective, were I to be offered a government job, this would be the best place to be (knowledge being power, etc.).

This is not to say that the announcement is worry-free. The troubling parts are: 1) whether this means that both internal and external intelligence assessments will  now be politicised, much as the Zaoui and Urewera 18 cases were; and 2) no Parliamentary consultation or inputs were done in the build-up to the change. Although the Murdoch report is correct (there was a need to rationalise the flow of intelligence to the PMs office), it might have been more transparent and democratic to run the proposed reform past the country’s elected representatives rather than to just do it by executive fiat. There are also issues of accountability, since the NAB is not required to deliver specific reports to the the Intelligence and Security Committee (such as it is) or Parliament in general (although it does maintain a web site and issues and annual report on the generalities of its mission). The latter is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, because the PM can be made to account for the actions of his cabinet.

Thus, unlike many of my learned counterparts on the Left and in politics, I do not see the revamping of the EAB/NAB as an assault on civil liberties or an expansion of the security apparatus. Instead I see it as an effort to streamline and lend coherency to what the PM receives as informed advice on matters of security and intelligence. Time will tell if I am correct.

As some may remember, I have been in NZ on a mix of research and personal business (truth be told, I am in NZ accompanying my partner on her research leave. The title of this post is her idea, with a hat tip to Brian Easton). As part of my project on the security politics of peripheral democracies (which has NZ as a case study), I have been interviewing a cross-section of people involved in political life both in and outside the Wellington beltway: politicians, journalists, academicians, policy analysts, community and political activists, opinion-makers, bloggers (!) and a few very smart friends. Oh, and Lew (albeit informally, over a very enjoyable lunch). Some of those conversations were illuminating, some were lucid, some were disappointing and some, well, forgotten in the haze of a very good time.

Notwithstanding the fogginess of my recollection of a few of those conversations, one coherent theme has emerged. NZ’s so-called “number 8 wire attitude,” supposedly evidence of Kiwi pragmatism and resourcefulness, is actually the logical result of a chronic and perpetual lack of planning and an ex post, ad hoc approach to policy-making. One interlocutor phrased it as “policy by anecdote,” where politicians relate stories they have been told as proof that similar approaches elsewhere can work just fine in NZ (such as the repeated mention of Singapore as a developmental model for NZ because it is a small island economy, ignoring the obvious fact that it is authoritarian, stratified and in fact a state capitalist welfare state rather than a true market economy). Others simply noted a lack of vision, or a lack of reward for innovation. Some blamed the NZ character, others colonialism and imperialism, partisans blamed their opponents, analysts blamed the politicians, politicians blamed the analysts, journalists blamed the tabloidisation of news ….the range of explanations ran the gamut.

Be they on the political Left or Right, time and time again these keen observers of and participants in NZ politics and policy-making, some with storied histories of commentary and involvement in the debates of the last 25 years, noted that NZ political elites continually re-invent the wheel, adopt quick fix or knee-jerk responses and plaster solutions to concrete problems, and generally go with the cheapest option regardless of the complexities and repercussive consequences involved. There appears to be no full appreciation of the consequences of any given policy decision (including the shift to market economics and adoption of a nuclear-free status), and whatever sucess NZ has in the global arena is more a product of luck and chance (fortuna) rather than strategic planning and foresight (virtu). The current government is no exception and in fact is considered by this select crowd to be one of the shining examples of the syndrome.

In the view of these participant/observers, the situation is compounded by the lack of political and policy talent available. Beyond those who move overseas, the problem is generally seen as a product of the dunmbing down of political and historical knowledge in schools, media disinterest in anything other than scandal, risk-adverse cultures and abject mediocrity within the public bureaucracy, a gross lack of intellectual acuity and political nous on the parliamentary backbenches, and a general attitude of the part of both policy bureaucrats and politicians that “she’ll be right” regardless of what they do. That, and a loss of ethics, principle and integrity amongst the NZ elite in general.

I invite readers to ponder and comment on this. Given the range of people I have spoken to, this is not just the comments of a small group of disgruntled personalities. At another time I will reflect on what was specifically said about those people and agencies involved in security policy–that the MoD is less than useless, that the NZDF is a bastion of short-sightedness and political ignorance, that the NZSIS is a politicised, vengeful, incompetent cesspit, that the EAB is worthless and deservedly ignored, that the Police are as much a problem as they are a solution to domestic security issues, that the advice of all of these agencies and others are routinely ignored by the politicians in government at the moment–the list of grievances is long but the consensus amongst the consiglieri is strong: NZ needs a serious change in political and policy-making culture if it is going to really “punch above its weight” rather than simply muddle along–or be relegated to the lower tiers of democratic capitalist development within the next ten years.

 I read with interest that the SIS keeps a file on Jane Kelsey, apparently dating back almost 20 years. I am not a close friend of Jane but  know both her academic and activist work as well as some of her arguments with the SIS and Privacy Commission about her file (which will not be released to her, even in redacted form). Jane apparently came to the attention of the SIS because she was part of a Filipino solidarity group in the early 1990s and later because of her anti-APEC and anti-neoliberal activities (both of which have subsequently been vindicated in fact). I admire Jane because she is a person of conviction, and because she is staunch in the face of official intimidation. Deborah Manning is another such person. Were that there be many others of such character in New Zealand, but alas, especially amongst the male population, there are comparatively few in my estimation.

Putting aside the gender implications of Kiwi bullying and cowardice, the bottom line is as follows: the SIS is either lying or stonewalling on what Jane Kelsey’s file contains, and the so-called Privacy Commissioner is either an SIS toady or hopelessly ignorant of the issues at stake. Either way, this is another blow against Kiwi democracy. Truth be told,  the demolition of Kiwi civil liberties–particularly the right to privacy–was accentuated rather than diminished under  the Fifth Labour government, something the Key regime has happily continued.

If Jane Kelsey is a national security threat than I am Osama bin Laden, Anita is Ayman al-Zawahiri and Lew is, well…Lew.  We are all accomplices in critiquing the way NZ governments’ operate. If Jane has a file, then anyone who has voiced a public opinion against the government  could have a file. That is because for the last decade or so, dissent has been incrementally criminalised, and the definition of criminality is left to the government of the moment and its sycophants in the security bureaucracy. Hence anything oppositional can be grounds for snooping. That is how the SIS justifies its existence. Just ask Tame Iti or Valerie Morse.

Remember this small fact: being a pain in the rear of the security apparatus because of one’s vocal criticism of government policy, or being a critic of the SIS or the Police itself, does not constitute a threat to national security per se. If it does, that is all the more reason for the SIS or Police to release the evidence justifying claims that is the case. In Jane Kelsey’s case, her requests for release of her file have been met with bureaucratic obfuscation rather than transparency even though the SIS has all but admitted that nothing she has done constitutes a threat to national security. So, one might ask, why the obstruction on “national security grounds?” Although I have an idea why the SIS and Privacy Commissioner are hiding behind the skirt of “national security,” there are broader issues for civil liberties at stake that are worth considering here.

With that in mind I urge any reader who has expressed a dissonant, much  less dissident voice with regards to the way the NZ government and its security agencies operate, to make an official request for  your files. That is because it turns out the the extent of domestic espionage is far beyond what most Kiwis expect to be reasonable, and the SIS is utterly unaccountable for doing so. By this I mean that any dissident, right or left wing, is a potential target of covert monitoring and thus has a probable reason to make an OIA claim. I do not mean just the fringes of the Left-Right continuum, but anything in between: if you piss off the government of the moment or attack the SIS /Police on ethical or practical grounds, you can well be subject to “investigation” on the grounds that you constitute a threat to national security. It is all justified by the empowering legislation that was passed in  the last 15 years, including clauses that justify spying on New Zealand citizens who constitute “threats to  economic security” (which means that anyone opposed to governmental macroeconomic policy might as well be Osama in the opinion of the SIS). So, because she opposes neoliberalism and the APEC “free trade” doctrine, Jane Kelsey is the economic equivalent of a jihadi as far as the SIS is concerned.

That having been said, ask and you shall not receive. If Jane’s campaign is any indication, these  taxpayer-funded security bludgers feel no need to answer the silly requests of the people who pay their salaries. But should you insist, the SIS can be contacted www.nzsis.govt.nz.

Remember that you have to make an OIA (Official Information Act) request, and you should be as precise as possible when specifying the activities that you consider would have “warranted” SIS opening a file on you (of course, even asking that question could “warrant” the SIS opening a file on you).

Please ask Director Warren Tucker for a personal response in your OIA, and tell him that “Pablo” sent you. He knows who I am.

PS: The post has been updated twice to correct typos and clarify some sentences.

Memo to SOEs:

datePosted on 10:53, March 19th, 2009 by Lew

Out-perform the private sector or join it.

This is the ultimatum I’m reading into Simon Power’s letter to SOE chairs.

I think it’s entirely right for the government to expect the most responsible and diligent business practice from SOEs – but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them to outperform the private sector which is unconstrained by the same responsibilities borne by a state-owned business. The private sector is responsible only to the profit motive of its shareholders, without the constraints of the triple bottom line and exemplary standards of conduct, transparency and long-term commitment.* Inasmuch as these constraints represent economic profitability traded off against other types of value, they require a SOE to operate at a disadvantage compared to private concerns when performance is measured purely in terms of the raw numbers.

If the ultimatum is delivered (as I expect it will be) in more certain terms during the 9 April meeting, it will mean two things: first, it should drive substantial changes in culture and efficiency, which is a good thing, and is the stated purpose. Second, if the different constraints under which SOEs operate are not taken into consideration and the performance evaluation is undertaken on strict terms of profit (and given the Prime Minister’s decree that electricity prices won’t rise) then they will be set a task at which they cannot possibly succeed, and their expected failure to outperform the market will prepare the groundwork for them to be sold during a second term.

L

* You might think that these constraints are a load of old bollocks, but that’s a different argument, since the government’s stated position is that they’re just fine.

A useful press release generator, or three

datePosted on 22:32, March 5th, 2009 by Lew

DPF’s post mentioning MediaCom, which allows you to get/send press releases via NZPA feed, reminded me of this, which I’ve been meaning to post for awhile. The reason PR companies need to spam people with press releases is because at a basic level they’re so easy to write that almost any idiot can hack one out in half an hour, and so people do. If you’re someone who relies on them, by the time you’ve read the title and the first three paragraphs in order to figure out whether the press release has anything relevant for you, its writer has already won.

Not to say that writing good press releases is easy – far from it, writing genuinely good press releases is extremely hard; so hard that very few people actually can, and even for those people it can seem futile because nobody knows whether your press release is any better than all the rest of the guff which is clogging their intertubes until they’ve read the title and the first three paragraphs. If you’re a CommsTart,* this is a very important skill, however, because by writing good press releases you give the overworked, underpaid minions of the Corporate News Machine a labour-saving device, and if you can consistently write to spec they will gladly shortlist your releases for pre-publication, sight unseen, because they don’t have time to read the title and the first three paragraphs because … well …

That stuff in them there press releases ends up in your media. I don’t have it to hand (Kate, can I have it back?), but I seem to recall that very thorough Cardiff University research commissioned by Nick Davies’ for his excellent book Flat Earth News found that no more than 12% of articles published in major British papers were entirely free from material published by someone’s PR department or agency. In my work as a media analyst, if I actually want to find out about a major issue I go to Scoop and try to triangulate the facts from everyone’s press releases before I bother with the actual end-user media outlets. It’s rare they can tell me something the stakeholders’ CommsTarts haven’t already.

These facts – it’s easy to do badly, hard to do well, indispensable and ubiquitous – are not lost upon the wags of the media world, who have taken delight in lampooning this most cherished aspect of their craft. There are lots of press release generators out there. Most are good for a black bit of fun – this by one of our few remaining satirists Lyndon Hood only deals with the the one topic of child abuse, but it has good bones.

For the 80th birthday of AdNews, the Sydney office of Clemenger BBDO made this handy visual self-congratulatory press release generator:
adnews80thclem
(From commercial-archive.com.)
They know their stuff: this remains one of the best ways of quickly and efficiently putting together a quality press release – chop all the information up into bits of paper and arrange it so it flows, with just (barely) enough glue to keep people reading. Remember: the title and three paragraphs, and you win.

If you want industrial-strength, this one is made of much sterner stuff. Written by a computer programmer back in the Nineties and endlessly hacked on since, it and its variations will generate a dense blob of impressive verbiage – Bush-speak, web jargon, whatever you want. If fed the right source material, it would probably generate a halfway-competent press release.

It goes the other way, too – David Slack, in homage to George Orwell and Christopher Ketcham, created a DuckSpeak Translator which, if fed media-ready prose, would deliver you a lot of QUACKs and perhaps (if you were very fortunate or the author was very clever) a few actual words and even an idea. The DuckSpeak Translator is sadly no more, brought to its knees by the fact that David allowed any old idiot to add phrases to its vocabulary, so that by the time I got to using it sometime in 2006 it was so thoroughly clogged that you could put anything in and get nothing back but quacks – which may have been the intention after all. I think the project should be revived with a clean database, and phrases only admitted to its vocabulary if they have been taken cleanly from some rich source of such matter – such as the Hansard, or press releases. That’d be something worth quacking about.

L

* I use the term in gender-neutral reference to anyone whose work is tarting up their client’s self-interest so it can be mistaken for news.

Edit: Heh, the `or three’ on the end of the title was an afterthought added without reference to the previous post, which also contains it :)

Hate crimes law so that the Police can collect stats?!

datePosted on 18:18, February 21st, 2009 by Anita

TV3 had a piece in the first segment tonight about the Police wanting hate crimes legislation. Oddly they twice said that the reason the Police want the change in legislation is so that they can collect statistics on racially motivated crimes.

This makes me puzzle about four things:

  1. What are the racially motivated incidents that the Police currently can’t prosecute but would like to?
  2. Can’t the motivation of a crime already be used as part of the sentencing decision?
  3. If the Police want to capture statistics about racially motivated crimes why can’t they do that now?
  4. The Police are abysmal at responding to information requests, often saying they don’t have the data (even when it’s clear they once did), what would they do with these extra statistics?

Either way around, I’d be pretty uncomfortable with the idea that something is criminal because it is motivated by racism, rather than because of its actual outcomes – if you hit someone because they’re Asian it’s just as wrong as hitting them because they’re queer, or remind you of your ex, or because you’d had too much to drink.

[I recommend Rich and Lew‘s posts about hate speech legislation which canvas some of this area]

National: cutting their way into the recession

datePosted on 07:28, February 18th, 2009 by Anita

At Pundit Nicky Hager has an article up about National’s “spending” plans. Based on leaked material he shows that, having started to realise the gravity of the recession, English has increased capital expenditure by no more than an additional $250 million of capital spending a year: in terms of government spending that’s nearly nothing. As Hager concludes:

As the country heads into the worst recession of our lifetimes, John Key and Bill English have decided against any significant economic stimulus package. As other countries acknowledge the magnitude of the crisis and spend, our Cabinet will be putting their energy into finding places to cut.

At the same time the National cabinet is taking a knife to operational spending: 10% here, at least 500 jobs there, 30 more over here. These cuts of operational cuts will very quickly add up to $250 million, not to mention poorer services for all New Zealanders,

So National’s plans to get us out of the recession are… exactly what their plans always were: cut, cut and cut. Less service, less support, and what money there is will be redirected to the private sector labelled “infrastructure investment” and “improved competition”.

The Police brought this on themselves

datePosted on 16:05, January 27th, 2009 by Anita

Why are so many of us making so much noise about the investigations into Halatau Naitoko’s death?

There are three things that are influencing me:

  1. The Police have a history of failing to properly investigate their own, and even of covering up for colleagues. 
  2. There is a recent history of the Police undertaking disproportionate investigation and action on firearms charges against activists, and I’m still pretty riled by it.
  3. Their employees have behaved dishonourably in so many ways in recent memory and the Police have not apologised or truly addressed the actions.

Does this mean there was necessarily anything wrong with the Police’s action on Auckland’s Northwestern motorway? No

Does this mean there was necessarily anything wrong with actions of the individual AOS members? No.

Does it mean I am even remotely comfortable with the Police determining what investigation will be undertaken, how it will be undertaken and who will do it? Hell no!

The reality is that the Police brought this storm on themselves, by having behaved so badly in the past they have damaged our trust in them and they have made little attempt to rebuild it.

Several years ago I knew a man who had worked in the AOS for many years; a good and honourable man. When I heard what had happened on Friday I had two first instincts, the first was to imagine the officer who had pulled the trigger and think of the man I knew and feel for the officer’s pain and guilt. The second was to think “Oh here we go, let’s see how fast the spin kicks in and how fast and deep they bury the investigation”.

The individual officers who were there on Friday deserve and have my thoughts and sympathy. I can’t imagine the pain and guilt they are feeling right now, and I am so very grateful to them for everything they do to keep us safe.

The Police organisation, however, deserves every piece of cynicism and distrust I direct its way.

The Police Officer or the Police?

datePosted on 06:00, January 26th, 2009 by Anita

Idiot/Savant puts forward the case that the Police Officer who shot and killed Halatau Naitoko should be charged:

Look at the precedents: hunters kill their mates in tragic accidents fairly frequently. They are usually made to stand trial for careless use of a firearm, or in cases where there is clear negligence, manslaughter. Some are discharged, some are convicted, some end up on home detention, some (in very serious cases) end up in jail. We do this, despite the tragic circumstances, because we as a society have decided that people who play with guns need to exercise the utmost care and responsibility when doing so.

To take a different set of analogies, however, sometimes when someone kills with a vehicle they are charged, sometimes it is the employer that is charged when it is clear that it was the practices of the employer that was at fault. Perhaps this is a case where the Police should be charged with having work practices that led to a death.

When there is a bad outcome of a Police action it is sometimes the fault of the Police, sometimes of the individual officer, sometimes both, but by focussing on the individual Officer we allow the Police off the hook. It seems to me that there are times when the Police plays on that focus on the individual to move the spotlight away from their poor culture or organisational practices.

Having just skimmed the Health and Safety and Employment Act and the Crown Organisations (Criminal Liability) Act it appears that the Police could be prosecuted (although I may have become very confused by the nature of “person”s). If so, then if the death was caused by a Police practice there is an opportunity to hold the Police to account without needing to prosecute the individual Officer for their employer’s mistake.

What do they mean by private healthcare provision?

datePosted on 06:00, January 23rd, 2009 by Anita

In a number of threads people have brought up the idea that our existing publicly provided health system is fundamentally flawed and should be replaced by a privately provided healthcare system. Every time I read that argument I want to make a single (bold face) point:

The vast majority of our healthcare is provided by private providers.

The vast majority.

Take me for example, I see my GP (private provider), I have blood tests (private provider), scans (usually a private provider), take medication (private provider) and see a number of specialists (my main one is public but occasionally other public or private specialists). All except the specialists are private providers at least partly funded by the government.  One specialist is a public provider entirely publicly funded.

The only surgery I ever had was in a private hospital fully funded by the government.

So why, if the current health system is so broken, does anyone think that private provision is the answer?

I can see three possible reasons National and Act are arguing for “private health provision”:

  1. Transfer the last of the public money to the private sector to create private sector profits for shareholders.
  2. They don’t mean “private provision” they mean “private funding”, they actually want to cut the government spend and rely on individuals funding their own healthcare. Advantageous for the wealthy (who already have health insurance and would benefit from the tax cuts), disastrous for the poor who can’t afford private cover or care and don’t get tax cuts from the Nats.
  3. Ideological blindness.

Two are awfully cynical and the other requires a level of stupidity I don’t believe they have, any other offers?

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