Publishing ministerial advice ‘does democracy a disservice’

The publication of public servants’ advice to ministers under freedom of information threatens to undermine good government, the head of New Zealand’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has warned, in comments echoing several senior Australian bureaucrats.

Speaking to the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand last month on the issue of “free and frank” advice, Andrew Kibblewhite argued that while “more transparency almost always improves the conditions for democracy to flourish”, he also believes “if the free and frank advice officials provide to support ministerial deliberations were routinely released, it would pre-empt some options.”

Like counterparts in Australia, the Head of the Policy Profession says he’s witnessed a decline in the provision of written advice over his career. This concerns him — written advice cannot be adequately substituted with oral advice. “It is more accurate, more considered, less likely to be misunderstood and ultimately serves ministers better in making their decisions,” he notes.

Yet he is no opponent of transparency. In fact, Kibblewhite praised NZ’s freedom of information system for its high level of transparency, which allows much more government information to be released than Australia’s — notably including Cabinet documents.

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