The spin on spin doctors

Helen Clark was pilloried for having more comms staff than anyone else.  National’s successful policy plank was to reduce the non-productive talkers and schemers.

The number of spin doctors and communications staff in government departments is on the increase again even after National swore to rein in the numbers.

National put a cap on the public service staff numbers in 2008 and also swore to cut back on communications and public relations staff after criticising the numbers employed under the former Labour Government.

It managed to get numbers down from 321 in 2008 to a low of 263 in mid-2011. However, numbers have gradually increased to 288 – an increase largely driven by the establishment of the Canterbury Earthquake Authority. Cera now has 26 communications staff – up from 18 last year and six in its first full year of existence. Of those, about eight are marketing staff for the central city rebuild. The numbers are also only for core government departments, so do not include staff employed by the Defence Force or Police.

Communications staff in big ministries including Education, Social Development and Inland Revenue have also increased over the past three years, partly because of mergers with other units.

In all fairness, most of these comms staff do nothing more than answer screeds of dumb OIA questions from citizens that have no consideration for the actual costs involved in continuously asking for answers to the most mundane of questions.   

There has been increasing focus on the relationship between spin doctors, media and bloggers after Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics revealed cases of staff from the Prime Minister’s office working with controversial blogger CameronSlater on some topics, such as an OIA release on the SIS briefing to Phil Goff by Warren Tucker.

Many media were concerned about the way Official Information Act requests were being handled by communications staff with delays common and suspicion that information was being withheld for political reasons.

The government should stop dicking about with there OIAs.   The whole culture of trying to control and spin OIA results is what is behind the growth of spin doctors.

All it is doing is creating a culture of distrust, and the ridiculous delays (or in some cases, the ridiculous speed) at which answers are provided do nothing but fuel a look where complaints have to be made to the Ombudsman.

After ongoing concerns about the increased pressure on the Ombudsman’s workload, extra resources were provided in last year’s Budget.

It is typical that when a new government takes over, they are quite happy to follow the OIA process, as it will reveal all the faults of the previous government.  As they start building their own track record, they suddenly want to curtail and spin this process, causing an snowballing process where they want to say less and less, obstruct more, need more people to deal with the queries, and the Ombudsman gets overloaded.

The appearance of “open government” is lost.  The appearance of secrecy and arrogance is fueled.

This is the normal process in the life cycle of a government.


– Claire Trevett, NZ Herald


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  • Greg Presland

    In all fairness, most of these comms staff do nothing more than answer screeds of dumb OIA questions from citizens that have no consideration for the actual costs involved in continuously asking for answers to the most mundane of questions.
    Yep stupid plebs they don’t even have inside contacts into the PM’s office willing to help them on the phone so that they ask the right questions …

    • Jp

      Have you been disbarred yet Greg?
      Your trust advice needs some work

    • Dave_1924

      And how did the PM’s office under Clark and the defacto Deputy Simpson work Greg? And the War room under Cunliffe? No bloggers in there doing anything slightly naugthy, leveraging contacts inside ministries? Feeding lines to Journo’s?

      You guys, WOBH & The Standard, represent both sides of the divide and you’re both the same – ends justify the means…..
      nice to see you post here though Mickey

      Edit: spelling

      • MaryLou

        Only one question remaining – does either side break laws in pursuit of their goals?

    • The Whinging Pom

      So, in your opinion, should it be every citizen’s right to ask as many questions of government departments as they wish, free of charge, no matter how costly the effort of collating the answer is?

      If you believe it is, is there any point at which you’d consider it appropriate to put a limit on the number of questions being asked, or impose a ‘user pays’ charge that recovers the cost of generating the answer?

    • jack185

      I’m surprised this got past the mods. They hate freedom of expression here.

      • Yeahright

        Do these freedom of expression’s apply to Cam talking to John, or is that bad freedom compared to good freedom?

    • Iceberg

      0h the irony of you commenting on a post about spin.

    • Hard1

      “Yep stupid plebs they don’t even have inside contacts into the PM’s office “.
      Architect of the demise ?

    • Warren Murray

      In short, there is a cost to the OIA.

      Public agencies use Comms staff to answer OIA requests and to produce consultation docs and various types of publicity, liaise with media, etc. The opposition (regardless of it being red or blue) chew up these resources and, at same time, criticise the # of comms staff employed. Any number would be too many and when too much time is taken in responding to OIA the Govt is blamed for that too.

      Can’t win, really.

    • The Whinging Pom

      Still waiting for your response to my questions to you from yesterday. They’re quite simple ones, really, and you must have a view on them. Unless you just set out to be anti everything and to criticise for the sake of it…

  • Jonathan P

    Perhaps the citizens asking the mundane questions just need to be told the right questions to be asked, would make things so much easier and faster.

    -edit- beaten to it, although mine was said with humor.

  • James Growley

    If the public are entitled by way of OIA to see documents, why not just put everything online with anything sensitive redacted. It would save a lot of money and trouble.

  • What a hoot. So you are part of the problem Cam. Cheers big ears.

  • Michael_l_c

    Why employ spin dr’s to answer OIA’s unless you are trying to hide something. Just release the documents or don’t. The reasons not to are laid out in the act. Then it is off too the ombudsman with wait of a year or so.
    Stop playing games & wasting my money.

  • Billythekid

    In conversation with a boil head the other day that was requesting OI for the umpteenth time regarding christchurch post earthquake garbage. I challenged him about him wasting time on several trivial matters and he responds by stating who gives a …. the gummints paying for it. I explained I and many others are paying for it as taxpayers, the gummint just administer the money. He still didn’t get it. Who do you think he voted for in the local and central elections of late ???

  • Addedup

    No, the Comms staff at CERA hook up with their council counterparts and drop into our workplace to tell us how fantastic the restaurants are in the broken abandoned CBD and if we want to buy an apartment they will help facilitate.
    Nothing like being told by a fat women funded to eat by my rates how good the local restaurants are and the have off the plans apartments being spruiked by tax funded Cera