The unknown-knowns of government officials

Dr Randall Bess
Insights Newsletter
21 April, 2017

Former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is famous for his reference to known-knowns, known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns.

In other words, there are things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know.

A seasoned government official might sympathise with Mr Rumsfeld, knowing that as policy reform enters the public arena, there are untold opportunities for known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns to appear, surprising a government used to working with known-knowns.

In contrast, most academics thrive on pursuing known-unknowns, if not unknown-unknowns. It is their role to push the boundaries of what we know.

For example, last year academics at the University of Auckland and overseas released evidence of historical discarding of fish and misreporting catches in New Zealand waters. Their work showed the problems could be more widespread than previously known.

These same academics have requested the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) release more than 100 reports on alleged discarding and misreporting. MPI refused their request, along with a more refined request for 14 named reports.

The academics assert MPI’s refusal to release these reports obstructs their ability to come to grips with the problems. They have filed a complaint with the Ombudsman whose role is to investigate, amongst other things, decisions made by Ministers and department officials subject to the Official Information Act (OIA).

The purpose of the OIA (paraphrased) is to increase the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand to enable more effective participation in law and policy making. It also aims to promote the accountability of Ministers and department officials while protecting official information, with the public interest and personal privacy in mind.

In this situation, MPI asserts that it has already released large amounts of information, referring to its support last year for Michael Heron QC’s independent review of MPI’s handling of three investigation reports.

But, these reports had been leaked, not willingly released to the public. MPI was caught out and was facing a public outcry. It had few options besides supporting an independent review.

This situation is indicative of a fourth category that has arisen since Rumsfeld. There are unknown-knowns, things we refuse to acknowledge we know. Stated another way, government officials may know things they don’t want us to know they know.

The Initiative eagerly awaits the Ombudsman’s decision on whether to investigate the academics’ complaint, and if investigated, any resulting recommendations.

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