Sepuloni consulting on social investment and data

Carmel Sepuloni wants to consult with NGOs and users of public services before outlining the Government's data-use policy. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has announced the Government is seeking the views of the public and NGOs on how it uses people’s data to target spending with what the previous Government called a 'social investment approach'.

Sepuloni signaled the Government would not force groups or individuals to give up data to get funding, saying the Government wanted to refocus 'social investment' on "investing for social wellbeing."

She told the post-Cabinet media conference on Monday the Social Investment Agency would talk with NGOs, Government agencies, and people who use sector services from May to August. The outcome of the engagement will inform where the Government takes its approach to data privacy and protection.

The move has been expected. Labour was strongly critical of the granular level of data collected as part of the previous National-led government’s social investment approach, but had made no secret of the fact that some form of social investment would continue with different data and privacy settings.

Led by then-Finance Minister and later Prime Minister Bill English, social investment gathered data about people using Government agencies in an attempt to better target services to them.

It caused considerable controversy after the Government ordered NGOs to hand over data about clients before it would approve funding for their programmes. That decision was reversed after a scathing report from the privacy commissioner.

Sepuloni has long signalled that she agreed in principle with the idea of social investment, but disagreed with the data-gathering policies of the previous Government. She scrapped the collecting of personalised data on gaining office.

She said that the new approach would be about regaining trust in how the Government uses information.

“There is a level of distrust with how the Government uses information and it is important that we regain that trust,” she said.

“Our Government is not going to be undertaking a data-for-funding regime,” she said.

She said the new focus would be about “investing in social wellbeing”.

The announcement did not add much to earlier signals from the Government, but some detail emerged from questioning.

Sepuloni said that the use of predictive modelling would be used with more care and transparency than in the past.

“It should not be the sole guide in determining the decisions a Government makes,” Sepuloni said.

“There will be work undertaken that that type of modelling is used safely and there’s transparency in using it,” she said.

Proponents of the old model are sceptical.

In an interview with Newsroom in February, English said if people knew how much giving up their data might help them, "most would choose to surrender it", adding that without social investment’s granular detail and “narrow-spectrum interventions”, social spending would not find its intended target.

"It's sliding back to the tradition of public policy analysis which uses broader categories and generalisations: poverty, children, helping Maori. Social investment is all about getting down to the person and the family,” he said of Labour's expected changes.

After Monday's media conference, National’s Spokesperson for Social Investment Paula Bennett said The Government should just be upfront with the public that it wants to stop using data.

"In doing so, will throw away the greatest opportunity in a generation to improve the lives of vulnerable New Zealanders," Bennett said.

“Minister Sepuloni today said that the Government will work with the ‘social sector to develop a single shared set of rules and tools for the use and protection of personal information in the social sector’.

“The only explanation for the Government’s decision today to form yet another working group, after years of work on how we use and protect data, is because they fundamentally don’t believe data will make a difference to the delivery of social services."

Sepuloni did not agree that the new approach would be to “blunt” the collection and use of data.

She said the early signs she had received from the NGO sector on data sharing were positive but only if they were brought on board during the consultation.

“The feedback that I’ve got from NGOs is they’re interested in using data that can inform their service so that they can be as effective as possible, it just needs to be that there’s a shared understanding of how they use that information and that they’re part of that decision making.”