3 February 2012
All agency Briefings for Incoming Ministers, prepared following the 2011 general election, were released this week on the Beehive website. The list on that site covers 74 briefings, although several entries are not agency-specific – for example there are briefings for Regulatory Reform, Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit and Natural Resources Sector, in addition briefings by the responsible departments. The Department of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Social Development included multiple briefings within their listing.
There has been increasing conformity with the Cabinet Manual and the State Services Commissioner’s guidance on preparing BIMs. That guidance encourages agencies to prepare a snapshot of their responsibilities including an outline of major policy matters that an incoming Minister will encounter in the first few months in office. The audience is the Minister not the media. This is confirmed by the direction on size. “The initial briefing should be short, reflecting the time pressures on the incoming Minister. A briefing should normally be between five and 50 pages in length, depending on the size and complexity of the Department.”
Intriguingly the Tertiary Education Commission seems to be the least conforming agency! Its briefing is 68 pages, taking 38 pages before introducing issues that the Minister will need to consider in the coming months!  Substantial parts of its briefing are also withheld.
Treasury, which in times past has been voluminous in providing its briefing, maximised its 50 pages (although it also prepared the additional regulatory reform and CCMU briefings already mentioned.) NZ Police briefed its Minister in 48 pages and Education in 47 pages. The Department of Internal Affairs (40 pages) and the Ministry of Social Development (32 pages) prepared a number of supplementary briefings for other portfolio Ministers they support.
Although the sole purpose of the briefings is to assist Ministers, the content is subject to the availability principles of the Official Information Act. The speediness with which the Government has published the briefings contrasts dramatically with the reluctance of state governments in Australia to disclose their equivalent briefings. This is discussed in an entry on Peter Timmins “Open and Shut” information blog. He is not impressed by the reluctance of the Victorian government to publish BIMs;
“At least reasons given for the need for confidentiality in Victoria last week would have given the ‘Yes Prime Minister’ team, currently playing in Melbourne, some good local lines – release would ”delay the operation of effective government in Victoria,” damage government’s relationship with the public service, and mislead the public. Sir Humphrey’s best of course was “Minister, you can be open or you can have government but you can’t have both.”