The secretive inertia of government

Gather round and listen to this tale.

One of the promises made by the current government in opposition that they managed to get in place without much difficulty was the Lobbyists Register.  This was to make the whole lobbying process more transparent. Any firms wanting to lobby the parliament would have to register themselves, and their staff and their clients and update it three times a year.

Whatever the benefit of these regulations, they seem to entail alot of red tape, particularly for smaller firms, or those for whom lobbying is only part of their activities. New regulations are meant to be assessed by a Regulatory Impact Statement.

I asked to see it. There wasn’t one.  I asked why.

A long process followed.

There was alot of prodding of the Finance Department who would prod the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet whom would be elusive until prodded again after prodding from me.

Fully 6months of prodding resulted in this.

Dear Mr Green
Lobbyist register
Thank you for your query seeking information on whether a Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) was required for the Australian Government Lobbyist Register. I apologise for the delay in responding to your query.

The Office of Best Practice Regulation considered that the impact on business, including the compliance burden of the register, was relatively low. Consequently, a RIS was not required for the decision to introduce the register.

I hope this information assists your research. Should you have any further queries please contact the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as they maintain the lobbyist

The 6 months also included numerous attempts to find out who I was working for, what bodies I was affiliated with etc. and I was required to give my home address in order for it to be signed off on.

Now, there are questions here about what’s the point of an RIS. It seems the criteria for determining whether an RIS is required is similar to what an RIS does, only less open. The front page of the AFR promises changes to the register, I wonder if these will require an RIS.

But more interesting is just how long it took to get this answer. It’s hardly sensitive information that could shake governments or undermine the quality of advice by bureaucrats. It’s hardly something that would have taken long to write, or an answer that was hard to find.

Why do government departments have such great inertia against releasing information, even when the sensitivity is so low. Why are they so concerned with just who is asking about a process (RIS) that is meant to be public anyway.

Moreover, why such secrecy about a  regulation designed entirely in the name of transparency?

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, regulation, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
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14 years ago

Good question. One possibility is that no-one has been allocated the particular job of dealing with the the type of thing you are asking for (i.e., the actual physical process of sending the response, so it is no-one’s responsibility to provide it and so no-one sends it). This is a problem with micro-management, which I assume many areas of the public service have, where no-one takes responsibility for anything they don’t have to (i.e., isn’t on their workload). Another possibility is that the person who’s job it is is simply lazy, has 100 emails etc., and simply deletes some they don’t care about. Sorry for yet another anecdote, but one of my friends worked in one area of the public service and constantly put various requests in the shredder. He noted one of the interesting things was that caused essentially no complaints or follow ups. Perhaps in your case, because you did follow things up, you finally got what you wanted (possibly from another person employed to deal with follow-up matters).

14 years ago

The last dealing I had with the OBPR was to ask if a RIS was required for some regulations I was writing (just in the last few months, not the dark ages). The process is for the regulation-proposer to self assess using a form OBPR supplies (available publicly if you’re keen) and they’ll confirm the assessment.

But one exception is if the regulation was an election committment. So I’m baffled. In the case of the lobbyist register no RIS would be required as it is an election commitment. The question is why couldn’t PMC just tell you this rather than faff about for ages making up the malarky about OBPR making assessments that took a long time.

BTW, OBPR took 3 days for my last reg assessment.

In my experience, departments are just fine with releasing info. But as soon as a department asks the minister’s office about it (which they shouldn’t do anyway, but ministers insist) everything gets sketchy.

14 years ago

I think that the RIS are pretty tendentious. My favourite is the RIS to the tax amendments that introduced section 45B. The section allows the Commissioner to make an essentially subjective judgement as to when a (concessionally taxed) capital distribution should be considered in reality a dividend.

The RIS says that the impact would be low, because in essence, the sections would only apply to companies trying to disguise dividends as capital distributions. It is perfectly circular and completely wrong – several millions of dollars are spent on advice with respect to s 45B every year and it is one of the most contentious sections of the tax law, as in fact it is theoretically able to apply to almost any distribution of capital whatsoever.

Back on topic, I agree, that the effort to work out who you were sounds disturbing to me. Who are you? – a citizen, so hurry up already!

14 years ago

Sir Humphrey: How are things at the Campaign for the Freedom of Information, by the way?
Sir Arnold: Sorry, I can’t talk about that.

Knowledge is power, it is said. Thus, whoever sits on information and does not share it is very powerful indeed. So it must be the default position of all those involved in authority to withhold information wherever and for as long as possible.

They wanted to know who you were before giving you information because they wanted to know if you could embarrass them with that information, or with the fact of their not giving you it.

Also from Yes, Minister – “If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.”