Chapter 3 - Public attitudes to information-sharing
3.1 In 2010 Inland Revenue partnered with Colmar Brunton and the Chair of e-Government at Victoria University of Wellington to conduct research to better understand the public’s views on information, confidentiality of information and information-sharing between agencies.
3.2 Following the initial research project, Inland Revenue has undertaken further research specifically investigating attitudes towards sharing Inland Revenue information to improve the Government’s response to serious crime.
The initial research project – public attitudes to information-sharing in the course of providing online services
3.3 The initial project took a qualitative research approach to explore attitudes of New Zealanders towards the collection, management and sharing of personal information, specifically in the course of providing online services. The project was carried out by researchers from Victoria University of Wellington, Inland Revenue and Colmar Brunton. A project advisory group consisted of representatives from Inland Revenue, the Ministry of Social Development, the State Services Commission and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.
3.4 The project undertook a review of national and international research in the field and carried out semi-structured interviews with Inland Revenue staff about the conditions and future directions of providing online integrated public services. There were then 10 intensive focus group sessions with a total of 63 members of the public.
3.5 Most research participants had a positive attitude towards information-sharing, believing the practice enabled better public services and increased service effectiveness. The majority considered the Government’s information-sharing intentions and practices to be benign, and most placed high trust in the Government and its agencies.
3.6 However, some thought greater information-sharing increased the power imbalance between government and citizens, and eroded trust. Participants with a high dependency on social services, and Māori, Pasifika or self-employed participants were more likely to hold these attitudes.
3.7 Although participants were prepared to provide personal information to organisations in return for improved public services or other personal or collective benefits, they saw the need for government agencies to play by the rules by using the information provided only for its intended purpose and asking clients for consent.
3.8 Participants had little knowledge of how their personal information was stored, used or shared by government agencies. Further, they believed that greater sharing of information occurred than actually does in practice.
3.9 The accuracy of the information government agencies collected was of concern, particularly information used to categorise clients or determine their eligibility for social services.
3.10 Sensing a lack of transparency or encountering incompetent staff during a service interaction made participants uncomfortable and contributed to a desire for greater control over their personal information.
3.11 Participants supported information-sharing between agencies that were related by their roles and responsibilities, such as a social service cluster between Inland Revenue, Work and Income, and Housing New Zealand.
3.12 Participants shared personal information with government agencies to obtain a public service. Similarly, participants expected information-sharing between agencies to occur in order for them to obtain a public service – not for the explicit benefit of government agencies.
3.13 The study suggested the context in which information-sharing between government agencies occurs is particularly important.
3.14 Findings indicated that information-sharing between government departments and agencies should occur with the customer in mind. Ideally the context within which personal information is shared should feature the following characteristics:
- be transparent and have clearly defined boundaries;
- be customer-centred and give the customer control;
- be relevant to the specific public service cluster;
- occur as part of a multi-channel service delivery strategy; and
- relate to the customer’s service need.
Specific research on information-sharing in relation to dealing with serious crime
3.15 Inland Revenue partnered with an external research firm to conduct interviews and an online survey. The purpose of the research was to better understand how Inland Revenue’s involvement in information-sharing to support the Government’s response to serious crime could affect perceptions of the integrity of the tax system.
3.16 To support the research, an advisory group was established, comprising representatives from the Ministry of Justice, New Zealand Police, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Victoria University of Wellington and Inland Revenue.
3.17 Participants included senior government officials, experts in tax, law, media and information communication technologies, tax agents and intermediaries, and members of the business community.
3.18 The study employed a mixed-method approach, combining qualitative in-depth interviews with an online survey. In relation to identifying and/or stopping serious offending, the research sought to understand what information-sharing activities or practices are considered acceptable, the types of information that should be shared, and if increased information-sharing would have an adverse effect on the integrity of New Zealand’s tax system.
3.19 Four hypothetical information-sharing scenarios were developed for this study. The first involved Inland Revenue sharing information with New Zealand Police after discovering a serious offence during an audit. The second involved Inland Revenue sharing taxpayer information with members of a taskforce, and the third involved sharing a set of risk assessment scores with the New Zealand Police. The final scenario involved Inland Revenue supporting the Department of Internal Affairs by providing expertise and information.
3.20 The scenarios were deliberately designed to test the boundaries of acceptability of Inland Revenue’s involvement in cross-government information-sharing actions. These scenarios were not proposals but a way to determine what was and was not considered acceptable by the public.
3.21 Details about the research can be found at www.taxpolicy.ird.govt.nz.
3.22 Overall, the research found that Inland Revenue’s participation in information-sharing actions to address serious crime was considered to be acceptable if it was “fit-for-purpose”. If the Government proceeds with this approach a number of concerns raised by the research participants must be addressed. These include balancing the:
- individual’s right to privacy with the social benefits to society;
- nature of the serious crime with the type and breadth of information requested;
- authority of the information with the ability of Inland Revenue to supply it; and
- the intended and potential use of the information with the risk of error and its misuse.
3.23 It is also clear from the interview and survey data that cross-government information-sharing to address serious offending is an all-of-government issue and is not specific to Inland Revenue. Further, legislation must underpin any fit-for-purpose information-sharing action and this should signal the permission, controls and transparency the public requires.
3.24 Finally, tax secrecy does not appear to be a significant concern when considering Inland Revenue’s involvement in cross-government information-sharing to address serious crime. However, the potential impact on citizens’ trust in Inland Revenue and subsequent impact on the integrity of the tax system would need to be considered. Provided the Government communicates that Inland Revenue will share specific taxpayer information only under specific circumstances, both trust and integrity will be maintained in spite of selectively relaxing tax secrecy regulations to identify and stop serious crime.