Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: We are, at last, navigating out of the "meth contamination" debacle

106 Responses

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  • Michael Meyers, in reply to Clarke,

    I think the answer is much more likely to be in the entrenched risk aversion of the Wellington bureaucracy rather than in any nefarious scheme.

    I was watching the interview with Judith Collins from Breakfast this morning (from this article) where she is saying that the Minister couldn't possibly question the HNZ experts and this is exactly what I was thinking.

    In my experience, public servants are trained to be risk averse above all else. This risk aversion falls down a little when the claim after the fact is that the Minister was "just taking advice". Although I'm sure it helps that Judith Collins can now pass the blame onto someone else.

    Wellington • Since May 2014 • 55 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Michael Meyers,

    I was watching the interview with Judith Collins from Breakfast this morning (from this article) where she is saying that the Minister couldn’t possibly question the HNZ experts and this is exactly what I was thinking.

    Most of what she’s saying there is bullshit. What Paula Bennett said was not conveying any official advice. There was no such advice – just a poorly-written guideline for meth lab cleanups. Jack Tame keeps asking who the experts were who advised the minister and she can't say.

    I think it suited them to have villains – and subsequently they got worried because it turned out to be costing tens of millions of dollars.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22403 posts Report Reply

  • Ross Bell, in reply to Russell Brown,

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 163 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Russell Brown,

    But in general the reality is likely much more mundane

    To some extent I agree. We don't do envelopes stuffed with $100 bills. But we do have a culture of you scratch my back and I'll let you know when a really good investment property come up on the listings and let me shout you a nice dinner at Cibo while I talk about our meth testing company.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4423 posts Report Reply

  • Ross Bell,

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 163 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Michael Meyers,

    In my experience, public servants are trained to be risk averse above all else.

    Wouldn't the agency's Chief Executive have a strong effect on setting the agency's tone, though? If so and if agencies are getting it wrong, is it not the CE's or the SSC which employs them who are a big part of the problem rather than public servants generally?

    I guess it in part comes down to whether we're talking about averting risk of getting something wrong (or able to be interpreted badly), or averting risk of the Minister's wrath by contradicting what a Minister wants for their own political reasons.

    In either situation, though, if a Chief Executive is willing to stand up to a Minister and world, and back their staff to produce work and advice which mightn't be to everyone's taste, I'd have thought that would make a strong impression on the output of the staff they employ.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1130 posts Report Reply

  • Ross Bell, in reply to izogi,

    HNZ were without a CEO at a critical time. Glen Sowry left in March 2016, and Andrew McKenzie didn't start until Sept 2016. Much of the bad behaviour happened prior to McKenzie. And actually very soon after starting, Mckenzie ended their practice of meth evictions (and is now doing some cool stuff).

    Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 163 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Russell Brown,

    What Paula Bennett said was not conveying any official advice.

    Paula Bennet's just repeated to John Campbell (about 5.10pm'ish) that she was following official advice.

    Also (Russell), John's just name-dropped you in his response.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1130 posts Report Reply

  • Clarke,

    Wouldn’t the agency’s Chief Executive have a strong effect on setting the agency’s tone, though? If so and if agencies are getting it wrong, is it not the CE’s or the SSC which employs them who are a big part of the problem rather than public servants generally?

    There has been a growing trend over the last 15-20 years - covering both the Clark and the Key administrations - where Ministers have had no hesitation in throwing CEs and staffers under the bus if they think that doing so is in their best political interests.

    If you go back a generation or so, the officials provided the advice and the Ministers took the heat. The change since the turn of the millennium is palpable - officials are part of the political process, not advisors to it. And the media have been happy to assist in this transition.

    The effect has been to fundamentally change the bureaucracy. Decisions are now motivated by political palatability, not by the scientific method, and risk aversion has come to rule the day.

    If we want the decisions in our country to be evidence based, then it’s incumbent on us to force Ministers to resign over bad decisions, not Chief Executives.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 85 posts Report Reply

  • Kumara Republic, in reply to izogi,

    Paula Bennet's just repeated to John Campbell (about 5.10pm'ish) that she was following official advice.

    Also (Russell), John's just name-dropped you in his response.

    It's obvious from that Checkpoint interview that Bennett had the denial dial cranked up to 11.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5379 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to Michael Meyers,

    the Minister was “just taking advice”

    equates to, just taking the advice she wanted to hear,
    and ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1790 posts Report Reply

  • Worik Stanton,

    I wonder where Mike Sabin fits into this picture?

    Otepoti • Since Nov 2007 • 31 posts Report Reply

  • Neil, in reply to Michael Meyers,

    In my experience, public servants are trained to be risk averse above all else.

    Risk assessment has often come to mean - the institution avoiding the consequences of making mistakes rather than avoiding making mistakes. The time spent proving compliance can be time not spent being compliant.

    Landlords were being advised that if they did not test a property and then a future tenant did their own testing and found residue then the landlord would find it very difficult and expensive to prove that any health problems the tenant and their family had were not due to contamination.

    So health and safety compliance provided no safety and only enabled con artists.

    Similar is happening elsewhere.

    Since Nov 2016 • 202 posts Report Reply

  • Michael Meyers, in reply to Ross Bell,

    https://beehive.govt.nz/release/meth-users-stopping-vulnerable-getting-state-homes

    In which Paula Bennett says: “We will not tolerate any meth use in HNZ properties,”

    Sounds like more than just taking advice and makes a lie of the claims that they couldn’t influence HNZ. Deflect and deny! Awful.

    Wellington • Since May 2014 • 55 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Tweeted this earlier, so should also include it here:

    People have understandably been talking about compensation and legal actions as a consequence of the “meth contamination” shambles. I think there are some hurdles there.

    Right or wrong, Housing NZ had a “zero-tolerance for illicit drug use” policy in place. (In my opinion, it was wrong, unenforceable and mostly for show.) I’m not sure whether that was in the tenancy agreements, but tenants evicted for “contamination” may be out of luck if use was shown.

    That’s not so in all cases, and there were some manifestly unjust rulings, including tenants who were not directly responsible for traces, others told to destroy their belongings(!) etc. And those huge Tenancy Tribunal awards for “damage” look very dicey now.

    Because if Housing NZ was claiming costs for expensive remediation work that we know was unnecessary, whose responsibility is that? I gather it is not legally possible to make claims against the Tribunal, which spurned contrary advice in making its findings?

    Private property owners who were needlessly told by testing and remediation firms to spend tens of thousands of dollars and/or destroy their belongings might have an easier road to compensation.

    Property owners bullied (by estate and letting agents) into paying for tests showing irrelevant historical traces that needlessly took tens of thousands off the value of their assets might have a case too.

    As things stand, I think the government responding to HNZ tenants’ experiences on a case-by-case basis – even one that doesn’t involve admitting liability – would be a decent thing to do.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22403 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to Clarke,

    If we want the decisions in our country to be evidence based, then it’s incumbent on us to force Ministers to resign over bad decisions, not Chief Executives.

    Probably, but I wonder if there's a better way to reinforce the separation of Ministers from the public service, before it comes to resigning, than just tell Ministers they have to resign all the time.

    Even if this had been allowed to come out when the Minister concerned was in office, there's such a small pool of candidates (elected MPs) that disgraced Ministers often just end up being re-hired as Ministers again a year or two later. The mechanism for generating the short-list is a popularity contest so we're always going to get idiot Ministers from time, but in the end someone has to do that Ministerial job.

    I don't know how to do it, but ideally we'd simply have a system that held public servants to account fairly, but also protected public servants from unwarranted Ministerial wrath without requiring the Ministers themselves to be acting to high standards.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1130 posts Report Reply

  • andin,

    . The mechanism for generating the short-list is a popularity contest

    thats a good argument for taking the human element out of the equation

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1703 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to andin,

    But the point of elected representatives is that it's explicitly a popularity contest. The alternative is a gerrymandering contest or a European-style presidential appointment process that we can see working ever so well even as we discuss it.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1101 posts Report Reply

  • izogi,

    At the risk of sounding stupid because I haven't thought this through, maybe there's merit in some kind of independent parliamentary commissioner role who's legislatively charged with investigating, reporting on and potentially enforcing the independence of the public service? (Maybe comparable with other independent roles like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.)

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 1130 posts Report Reply

  • Moz,

    There's a whole bunch of law about parliament being paramount and courts not getting involved if possible that makes some of this stuff quite tricky to enforce. By and large it's been found useful to restrict the legal system to preying only on elected members who are actual (accused) criminals rather than getting tangled up in administrative actions. While it might be nasty if a minister violates some guideline, making the a criminal offense or otherwise subject to the courts can get ugly fast, especially if you were tempted to also mandate that the minister step aside while the process took place.

    Sadly the alternative of making the discipline happen inside parliament is hard. In a two party system it's basically impossible, as you see with impeachments in the USA. But even in democratic countries it's fraught and generally ends up being political/popularity based.

    I suspect we may have to discover better ways to make democracy effective and ministerial behaviour will fall out of those. Sadly most of the research seems to be on ways to diminish democracy and make it irrelevant. But strangely the people thus elected don't seem willing to change that (if for no other reason than that the next government can just change the rules back as Danyl wrote recently).

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1101 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Russell Brown,

    But in general the reality is likely much more mundane than politicians taking kickbacks. There is, as already noted in this thread, a general risk-averseness in the public sector – and appearing to stand up for druggies is generally fairly risky when your political masters are busy stigmatising them.

    *coff* Mike Sabin *coff*

    Edit: I see Worik has already mentioned him.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2893 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to izogi,

    Probably, but I wonder if there's a better way to reinforce the separation of Ministers from the public service, before it comes to resigning, than just tell Ministers they have to resign all the time.

    We used to have this until Lange's government passed the State Sector Act 1987, which set the departments and ministries up as separate little businesses focused entirely on their minister and not on being part of a wider government process. An awful lot of the current problems with public service and accountability can be traced back to that split. SSC employs the CEOs but doesn't have any teeth to enforce any behaviours, or the nous or gumption to sort out what behaviours are appropriate. Which leaves most of the actual public servants between a rock and a hard place. Saying no to a minister is verboten (I did once to one of mine, which he was okay with but his staff advised my manager I was not to be brought into contact with the minister again) and saying no to your boss is also frowned upon.

    Hint to OIA requesters: be sure to specify "any diary notes" regarding the subject (or, even better, by a particular individual if you know who) when making your requests. Agencies have been known to interpret "communications" as not including diary notes (in today's jargon, "contemporaneous memoranda"). If a bureaucrat knows that her agency is going to do something that will backfire and can't get anyone to stop it, she will often write a diary note "for the file" and insert it quietly herself as an arse-covering manoeuvre, especially if she is in the firing line when it all falls apart. In the meantime, she will be diligently looking for a new position...

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2893 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to izogi,

    At the risk of sounding stupid because I haven't thought this through, maybe there's merit in some kind of independent parliamentary commissioner role who's legislatively charged with investigating, reporting on and potentially enforcing the independence of the public service? (Maybe comparable with other independent roles like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.)

    That's what the SSC is supposed to do, but previous Commissioners have bottled on finding ways to enforce it. When I was doing e-government there in the early oughties, we litterally had no way to get an agency to use the standards we were devising, if they could persuade their minister that they were a legitimate exception. And they always could because their minister didn't know shit about how the agency did what it did. What he or she did know is how to pressure our minister to have the agency excluded from the schedule.

    There's a constitutional point as well. Parliament is sovereign, but the public service is part of the executive and reports to the government of the day. Sitting a Parliamentary Commissioner on top of the State Services Commissioner might be seen to be a step too far in having Parliament interfere in the delivery of government activities.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2893 posts Report Reply

  • Neil,

    In order to get an insurance payout for decontamination insurance companies required property owners to file a statement with the police of p use citing the tenant.

    Since Nov 2016 • 202 posts Report Reply

  • Tom Semmens,

    If you want to see where the alternative reality of Trumpland comes from, I thoroughly recommend reading the comments section on the Kiwiblog post on this matter. Forget about what those retards are actually saying and focus on the cognitive processes at work.

    It is marvel of the type, full of the simple rejection of inconvenient science through the creation from thin air of nebulous conspiracy theories. As an exercise in looking into the workings of the mind of the regulars in Farrar’s sewer, it is fascinating. And remember, in America these same sorts of people have the NRA, their preacher and Fox News all repeating the same stuff, 24 x 7 x 365.

    Sevilla, Espana • Since Nov 2006 • 2193 posts Report Reply

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