The Government insists the Data Ethics Advisory Group is still active, even though it hasn’t met in over a year, Marc Daalder reports

A panel touted as a key body holding the Government accountable for its use of data is effectively missing in action, having last met in December 2020.

Statistics New Zealand, which is responsible for the Data Ethics Advisory Group (DEAG), and Stats Minister David Clark both say that it hasn’t been shut down. But Newsroom understands that even some members of the panel were under the impression it was on hiatus.

When the group was set up in July 2019, it was described as an important check on the government’s use of algorithms after a report found there was no way to ensure they were being used appropriately.

“As public servants, we need to be honest and acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. This group will help ensure decisions around the use of data are made with input from people who have a range of backgrounds and expertise,” then-Stats NZ chief executive Liz MacPherson said.

It was meant to meet four times a year and would advise government departments on their approaches to algorithms, artificial intelligence and data ethics.

The group has also been celebrated by the Government more recently. An October 2021 discussion document on a digital strategy for New Zealand, launched by Clark, described the Data Ethics Advisory Group as “work already underway” in helping build trust in data and digital technologies.

At that stage, it hadn’t met for over 10 months, according to a Stats NZ response to an Official Information Act request. The apparent hiatus began a month after the receipt of a review of the DEAG by consultants at MartinJenkins who said it was “not yet fully meeting expectations”.

The November 2020 review found that relatively few agencies had approached the panel with questions, that it didn’t have enough resource given the breadth and ambition of its terms of reference and that it needed a sharper focus to be more effective.

A year and a half later, Stats NZ said it still hasn’t made any decisions in response to the review.

“Fostering trust and confidence in the way government uses data is a priority for Stats NZ in its role as the Government Chief Data Steward,” a spokesperson said.

“While no decisions have yet been made on the recommendations coming out of the Martin Jenkins review, they are being considered as part of broader policy work focused on ensuring the right supports are in place so that government can use data safely and effectively to deliver services for New Zealand.”

The spokesperson added that the group was not “meeting regularly” but was available to agencies who wanted to reach out to it.

Clark made a similar point in comments to Newsroom.

“Although the group hasn’t met regularly, and the recommendations of the review remain under consideration, the data system has not been left without support. The group is available to government agencies who are looking to test ideas and policy proposals,” he said.

“While the DEAG is an important lever for the system, it is not the only lever available. There are a number of other resources and supports available to guide agencies through the ethics landscape. This includes frameworks such as Ngā Tikanga Paihere, the Privacy, Human Rights and Ethics Framework and the Data Protection and Use Policy.”

Stats NZ is set to report back to Clark later this year on work on “the broader trust landscape, the group’s position in this, and how we continue to ensure the safe and ethical use of data”.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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