Documents released about Budget decisions in education have been gutted by deletion of information.
In the Budget 2009 line-by-line review of education spending made public by the Treasury, there are 86 deletions in 78 pages, including one in the list of contents.
Trying to assess the effect of the Government’s decisions is made virtually impossible by the cuts, which cover subject matter and dollar amounts.
Likewise, there are significant cuts to material dealing with areas for scrutiny – and therefore possible cuts – in next year’s Budget. This is hardly good practice in an area of high expenditure, which affects nearly every family in New Zealand.
Education was allocated $11.3 billion in the 2009-10 Budget, about 80 per cent of which is spent on non-departmental items.
Despite a line-by-line review, a total of savings on non-departmental expenditure is not available because of deletions to items covering curriculum support, teacher development and another unspecified item.
The same review of departmental expenditure of about a billion dollars yielded savings of $11.8 million for 2009-10, falling to just $1.3m in 2011-12. Further reviews of expenditure were frequently recommended but information about what these reviews cover has been deleted in eight of the 15 areas of expenditure in the Education Ministry.
On eight occasions in five separate spending areas, information about the options for savings and the dollar amounts have been deleted.
The sentence “Information deleted in order to maintain the current constitutional conventions protecting the confidentiality of advice tendered, by ministers and officials” is used 59 times often several, times on the same page. A shortened version “deleted – confidentiality of advice”
is used 15 times.
The sentence “Information deleted in order to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank exchange of opinions” is used nine times.
Figures on possible savings in curriculum support and teacher development are deleted, and a table listing areas where “there is prima facie evidence that performance could be improved”, and therefore savings made in future budgets has been deleted.
In a section dealing with compliance costs there are five sections deleted, two of which relate to the removal of the requirement for schools to offer only healthy food options. There are no clues to the nature of the other three deletions.
In early childhood education, a sector which has doubled its share of the expenditure in the last 10 years, a section detailing where value from increased expenditure was not being achieved, is gone.
The Treasury paper notes: “Policy changes to reduce the cost of early childhood education across the board has (sic) had a small effect on participation rates for children who would benefit the most.” In other words, the additional expenditure begun under the previous government has not had much effect, officials believe. But we are not told how or why. How is this reasonable?
Other deletions cover sections dealing with funding of private schools, international education, inflation adjustments for school operating grants, professional development for teachers, payments for special education, ICT and the operation of the Correspondence School.
The papers are now so sanitised that they provide little effective guidance about the value of the savings, nature of the bids declined, or the impact of decisions on the operations and quality of the education system.
The practice of releasing Budget- related papers began in 2006 to deal with the requests received for Budget details under the Official Infonnation Act.
“These requests were dealt with in an ad hoc manner, which were individually time consuming and the responses were inconsistent, often requiring further clarification,” a Treasury letter to the finance minister before the 2009 Budget says.
The letter sought agreement to continue the practice of releasing material, and assured ministers that “Treasury vote teams remove any information that would normally be withheld under the OIA. Deleted information generally covers issues of commercial sensitivity, free and frank advice and issues under active consideration, ie declined Budget bids.”
On June 23, the Treasury posted Budget material on its website. Media attention centred on superannuation, deferral of tax cuts and the Government’s overall financial position. As a method of managing OIA requests, the Treasury says it is “quite successful” and meets the needs of most requestors.