Blue Books or Bland Books?

After months of wrangling, the O’Farrell Government has finally released several of the “incoming government briefings” – colloquially known as the “Blue Books” – given to it by government departments following the March 2011 election.

The Australian Financial Review had sought the release of these Blue Books under the Government Information Public Access Act (GIPA): the basis of NSW’s freedom of information regime.

The Government refused the release on the grounds that the documents had been prepared for submission to Cabinet, which attracts an exemption from GIPA’s release provisions. As commentators and the Office of Information Commissioner (OIC) have noted, however, Ministers are not prevented from exercising their own discretion to release Cabinet documents independent of the GIPA framework.

The Office of the Information Commissioner reviewed the refusal, and released a report in September. The OIC’s review acknowledged the Government’s insistence that the documents were Cabinet submissions, but noted that factual information in Cabinet documents is not necessarily exempt if it does not reveal a Cabinet decision or determination, or the stand taken by an individual Minister. The OIC appeared to suggest that the various departments had not given much weight as to what factual material might be made available if this test were applied.

Having the benefit of the Blue Books in hand, reading between the lines of the OIC’s review is telling. The OIC refers to “no ‘broader strategy or policy focus’” lying behind the Blue Books, referring to sections that are “merely descriptive of agency functions and personnel”. The DPC argued that having to disclose the very fact of on what it had chosen to brief the new Government might “‘reveal opinions and value judgments,as well as the broader strategies and policy focuses”. The OIC politely demurred that this was a consideration.

In fact, at one point, the OIC seems to suggest that if the applicant only knew what constituted the bulk of the Blue Books, it would be doubtful whether they would still be interested in them. (Given that I cannot locate any AFR reports subsequent to their release, I can only assume that this pretty much turned out to be the case.)

After considering the OIC’s report, the DPC has now released the Blue Books for:

  • Premier and Cabinet: Part One and Part Two , containing at least four volumes.

A section on “Major Issues” has been redacted in its entirety. Even the tantalising prospect of  DPC offering its views on potential reforms within its own agency (albeit confined to less than a page – p. 74) has been removed.

Volume Three has been omitted in its entirety from the released version. There is no indication as to what it might have contained.

A major redaction occurs in Volume Four: twenty two pages between “NSW Public Sector – Employments Arrangements” and  “Leadership in the Public Sector”. The outside reader would be none the wiser as to what might have fallen between these two bland headings if it hadn’t been for the tantalising Volume title page: “NSW Public Sector: NSW Public Sector and Reform Options”. Who isn’t curious as to what those “reform options” might include?

  • Treasury Those anticipating an overview of the state of the economy or the likes are in for disappointment. However, there is a 12 page redaction in the middle of the volume, where these sorts of issues might have been canvassed.
  • Planning Perhaps remarkable mainly for still prominently featuring senior bureaucrat Warwick Watkins, who at this time had been stood down by the previous Government over the Currawong land purchase that would lead to him being found at year’s end by the ICAC to have acted corruptly.

So, what has now been released is an amalgam of mission statements, corporate plans, handbooks and guidelines along with a seeming dump of the combined contents of departmental Outlook Contacts and Appointments: more “Bland Books” than “Blue Books”.

From the index to each of the Blue Books, it appears that short passages on the issues affecting key agencies was prepared, but these (with key exceptions) often run to little more than a page.

On available evidence, the Blue Books are certainly no soul baring exercise in getting the incoming government up to speed with the pressing issues of state.

While the publicly available components are hardly a piercing insight into the state of government, The Blue Books are a handy guide to the machinery of NSW public administration. In fact, they would be almost indispensable if not for the fact that the first act of any new government seems to be to upend much of the administrative arrangements so neatly laid out in such ‘bibles’.

The DPC release is limited to the Blue Books sought by the AFR, meaning that they are confined largely to economic and infrastructure portfolios. Those prepared for the likes of police, education, community services and the environment must presumably await a GIPA application. Whether any media outlet will do this, given the contents of those released thus far, is debatable.

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