Part 5: Using information to make good decisions

Reflecting on our work about information.

Information life cycle.

Information management often focuses on how information is collected, stored, accessed, and disposed of. However, that is not the end of the story. Delivering high-quality public services relies on quality decision-making. In turn, that decision-making depends on comprehensive, reliable, and relevant information.

Whether the decisions are about the day-to-day running of the organisation or are strategic decisions about policy making or service delivery, they need to be timely and based on evidence. It is at this point that good information management can make a difference.

If there is an effective process for collecting and collating relevant information and that information is provided to decision-makers when they need it, there is more likelihood the quality of those decisions will be high.

We have reported in much of our work that high-quality information is essential to making good decisions. However, public organisations not only have to make good decisions but also demonstrate to the public that they have made good decisions. This is important to promote transparency, as well as trust and confidence in the public sector.

Decision-makers need good information

In our 2016 report Reflections from our audits: Governance and accountability, we noted that those responsible for the direction of public organisations are accountable for the decisions they make. They need relevant, accurate, and up-to-date information to make good decisions.

In previous work, we have looked at how local authorities make asset information available to inform asset planning, renewal, and replacement. For example, Napier City Council told us that physical inspections and knowledge of local soil conditions showed that some of its assets were in better condition than it thought, and it was able to extend how long it estimated they would be used for. Fact-based information has given the Council more confidence in its planning decisions and meant that it could plan and budget more accurately.9

During the fieldwork for our 2017 report Using information to improve social housing services, staff at Housing New Zealand gave us numerous examples of unsuitable suggested placements because of a lack of information. In one situation, Housing New Zealand offered a person a two-storey house and found out about the person's mobility issues only when the person met the tenancy manager to sign the tenancy documents.

How information is provided to decision-makers

Information needs to be provided to decision-makers in an appropriate form, depending on the nature of the decision and the requirements of the decision-maker.

For example, if the decision is part of day-to-day operations, the information for that decision could be readily available in a simple format. Where the decision is more strategic or formal, the information can be more considered, analysed, or summarised. Whatever the purpose and format, the information should be fit for the particular purpose.

Our work about the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) illustrated that it collects and considers information from several sources and uses the information to make a recommendation about whether consent should be granted to make an overseas investment. The recommendation is put to the relevant decision-maker, who can be a Minister or a senior OIO official.

In support of the recommendation, the OIO provides the decision-maker with a comprehensive file of information for each of the statutory criteria that need to be satisfied for consent to be given. As well as the comprehensive information, the OIO provides a summary of each of the relevant criteria.

In this example, the information is provided to the decision-maker (who can be a busy Minister) in a way that allows them to make a decision based on a summary or after reading in more depth if they consider it to be warranted.

A public organisation's information systems and processes should facilitate access to information for strategic decisions and decisions in day-to-day operations. If the systems are easy to use and provide timely and efficient access, the information in those systems can be used more efficiently.

As mentioned earlier, systems that are not fit for purpose or that are difficult to use can make it harder for decision-makers and others in an organisation to use the information in those systems well.

Decisions about allocating resources

A public organisation, like any other organisation, needs to make informed decisions about how it allocates its resources.

An example of this is the OIO's "triage" process. The comprehensive package of information provided as part of an application for consent is initially considered by experienced staff and managers who are able to understand the application and apply knowledge held by the OIO about the applicant, the nature of the application, and other applications.

Those triage decisions are designed to more efficiently evaluate, in the light of the information the OIO has, what resources are required for the application, and how long it might take to process it. It helps the OIO to allocate resources efficiently.10

Learning from decisions

Once a public organisation has made decisions about delivering services and allocating resources, it is important that it also collects information to understand how much it costs to implement the decisions and to measure their effectiveness. Such information allows the organisation to learn and make increasingly better informed decisions. It also allows the processes for making those decisions to mature and become more effective.

In our 2016 report Education for Māori: Using information to improve Māori educational success, we noted that the Ministry of Education did not have the information it needed about how much its various initiatives and programmes cost, whether they were effective, and how they added value overall and to Māori students in particular.

Likewise, we found that the lessons from responses to security threats and exercises carried out by agencies involved in the national security system could be better collated and co-ordinated. This would enable good practice in one part of the system to be shared and implemented by other parts of the system.11

Making information about decisions available

In 2017, the Chief Archivist published a long-term strategy for Archives New Zealand and made some comments about the importance of good recordkeeping to the trust people have in the public sector. She noted that "people lose trust in government if there is poor recordkeeping, difficulties accessing information or privacy and security breaches by agencies". Her strategy encouraged the public sector to do better:

The "disappointing" levels of recordkeeping maturity among agencies 10 years after the Public Records Act 2005 are unacceptable. We need to work together with agencies to lift performance.12

We also see the importance of those comments in the work we do. It is not uncommon for us to consider situations where public organisations have not explained enough or made information available about the decisions they have made or what they have spent money on.

In our 2016 report Inquiry into the Saudi Arabia Food Security Partnership, we considered a contract for services entered into between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a Saudi Arabian group of companies, and payments made under that contract to a Saudi Arabian businessman. The inquiry was conducted because concerns were raised about money that the Government had paid to the Saudi Arabian businessman, and questions were asked about whether the payments amounted to corruption or bribery.

Although we found no evidence of bribery or corruption, one of the issues we focused on was transparency. We said the benefits of the contract were not clear, the contract did not outline the different policy objectives behind the arrangement, and it was not made clear on what basis the amounts paid under the contract were arrived at. This lack of transparency, at the time of the decision and later, led to public concerns that were not resolved through information requests or by explanations from officials. As we said in that report, without transparency, people will speculate.

Similarly, in our 2017 report Inquiry into aspects of Auckland Council's Westgate/Massey North town centre project, we noted that unsuccessful attempts by members of the public and council members to get information about the project resulted in complaints being made.

Our report commented on the importance of public organisations being as open as they can with their stakeholders about the arrangements they enter into and demonstrating how they are getting value for money. That transparency allows public discussion and debate, and is essential to supporting public accountability.

Organisations can be proactive about providing information to the public. Many organisations are increasingly making information available online, which provides easy access for the public and avoids the cost of handling individual requests for the organisation. A good example is the information made available by Auckland Council about its contracts and payments. The Council provides details on its website about the contracts it has awarded and how much it has spent on suppliers in each financial quarter where the amounts are greater than $50,000.13

Questions to consider
Do you provide your decision-makers with relevant, accurate, and up-to-date information?
Do you provide information to decision-makers in an appropriate form, and do your information systems facilitate that?
Do you learn from your decisions, including what your decisions cost to implement and how effective the decided course of action was?
Do you keep good records about your business activities and decision-making?
Do you actively consider what information you can make available to the public?

9: Controller and Auditor-General (2017), Getting the right information to effectively manage public assets: Lessons from local authorities, Wellington, paragraph 4.14.

10: Controller and Auditor-General (2018), How the Overseas Investment Office uses information, Wellington, Part 3.

11: Controller and Auditor-General (2016), Governance of the National Security System, Wellington, paragraphs 3.25 and 3.26.

12: Archives New Zealand (2017), Archives 2057 Strategy, Wellington, page 9.

13: See the section on Awarded contracts and supplier spend, at