Editorial: The right to know

Sarah Putt asks why it's so difficult to get information about government technology deployments

About 20 years ago, when I was a young reporter, I was interviewing an inspector at the Papakura police station when my line of questioning suddenly hit a dead end.

“What’s it got to do with you, why should I answer your questions,” the inspector demanded.

To which I replied: “Because the police are funded by public money and you are accountable to the people of Papakura.” Or something righteous-sounding like that.

To my surprise, instead of terminating the interview, he answered my questions.

That incident has stuck in my mind because it was the one time as a police reporter my role was questioned. The cops were pretty good about talking to me about arrests, ongoing enquiries, that kind of thing. Although they often spoke in that weird cop-language: “The offender approached from a westerly direction...”

Anyway, the point is, the cops are there to serve the public and part of that is putting up with media questions. So you can imagine my surprise when last month, on the eve of Computerworld going to print, journalist Randal Jackson told me that despite hearing that the Police had signed with Revera for an Infrastructure as a Service arrangement, no one would confirm it.

He was told by the Police CIO that he had to go through the communications team, but they were not returning Jackson’s calls. He went to Revera and FX Networks (who were handling the networking side of the contract) but they wouldn’t comment. Which I can’t really blame them for - why would a vendor want to offend a client by speaking out of turn?

Finally, just before deadline, a police spokesperson came back and confirmed the deal. She told us the project would be complete in mid-2013 but she would not say who had the contract previously, and referred us to the Department of Internal Affairs.

You can imagine my surprise when, a few days later, I opened a copy of our sister publication Reseller News and there was a photo of two police representatives at the opening of the Revera datacentre in Upper Hutt. It had been sent by a PR agency with the suggested caption: “Friday 27 July — a cast of IT luminaries and local politicians gathered to celebrate the opening of Revera’s ART datacentre, in Trentham, Wellington.”

Unfortunately Police national headquarters are not alone in insisting that queries about ICT deployments go through communication managers who maybe don’t understand technology. They probably expect to answer questions on hip operations, waiting times, runaway criminals, and school teacher revolts. When Computerworld calls up and wants to know why the Ministry of Education is pursuing its own software-as-a-service approach independently of the all of government approach to procurement, it’s probably not a call they feel qualified to answer.

So why not just transfer the call to the IT department?

I suspect there are several reasons, chief of which is that it isn’t always going to be a good news story. For example when Jackson, following a tip off, called the IRD last year to found out why it had abandoned its Oracle student loans system after spending $21 million.

As a journalist I generally have respect for in-house communication managers. Hundreds of thousands of dollars is spent by marketing on advertising campaigns, but every time a journalist calls they’ve got the brand in their hand.

But it’s concerning that government ICT managers and CIOs can’t speak to the media directly about technology deployments without having to go through an arduous process.

From what I’m hearing, many of them do want to front up. But, they are being told that if they speak publicly – without permission – they could be fired.

We live in an open democracy. Government ICT is a critical to the survival of the industry — according to annual MIS100 report, government accounts for around half of the largest IT-using organisations in New Zealand.

We want to know what works, what doesn’t, what’s useful, what isn’t. It’s public money being spent here — and, as I told the inspector all those years ago, the public have the right to know.

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