24 February 2023

Political parties’ access to information, including policy costings

Requests for information before an election

Being politically neutral includes being responsive to information requests by political parties to ensure a well-informed electorate in the pre-election period, so any response should be timely.

Political parties may seek information from public sector agencies through channels such as the Official Information Act 1982. Agencies must respond to all requests as soon as reasonably practicable. Any requests for information beyond what would normally be provided to the public should be referred to the responsible Minister and the response, if any, should be agreed with the Minister.

Any requests for advice or information by the incumbent Ministers must be for the purpose of the Minister’s portfolio responsibilities only and not for party political purposes. For example,

  • a request by a Minister for a copy of a presentation held by an agency within the Minister’s portfolio is likely to be appropriate, although ultimately this a decision for the chief executive
  • a request by a Minister for investment details in each electorate may be more properly requested under the OIA, since it is likely to be for party political purposes, rather than for the Minister’s portfolio responsibilities. (Read Chapter 6 of the Cabinet Manual).

For further guidance, see Section 6: The public sector and the general election.

See Case study scenario 3: Public sector agency receives an information request from its Minister.

During government formation negotiations

Inter-party negotiations to form a government are the business of politicians. However, the negotiating parties may want information and analysis from the public sector on issues that might form part of any coalition, support or other agreement. This includes policy costings information.

The Public Service Commissioner manages agency involvement in the negotiations to form a government. All requests by political parties for information to support the government formation negotiations must be made to the Public Service Commissioner. The full process is set out in Standards issued by the Public Service Commissioner under Schedule 3 of the Public Service Act 2020.

Read the Public Service Commissioner’s Standards for providing information to political parties during negotiations to form a government.

The Public Service Commissioner works closely with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and The Treasury to coordinate the process.

Using policy costings information

If an agency is requested to provide costings for information and analysis, the costings must be developed in consultation with The Treasury. This process is coordinated by the Public Service Commissioner.

There is a convention between Ministers and the public sector, that Ministers will not require nor use information on costings that has been provided during government formation in a way that might damage the political neutrality of the public service, and its ability to serve successive governments.

Read The Treasury’s guidance on costing of political party policy costings.

After government formation negotiations

When political party negotiations have concluded, but portfolio allocations have not yet been announced, in cases of great urgency chief executives may provide advice to the incoming government through the Prime Minister-designate.

The advice may be given only after the incumbent Prime Minister has given express consent and a process has been agreed with the Public Service Commissioner.

If portfolios have been allocated but the incoming Ministers have not yet been formally appointed, chief executives may, with the approval of the incumbent Prime Minister and with the knowledge of the incumbent Minister and the Public Service Commissioner, brief incoming Ministers on their portfolio responsibilities. The Secretary of the Cabinet will inform chief executives of the Prime Minister’s authorisation.

Briefings for incoming Ministers

After Ministers have been formally appointed, departmental chief executives must ensure that, as soon as possible, the Minister receives a Briefing for the Incoming Minister (BIM) for each of their portfolios. The BIM provides information about:

  • the entity
  • major outstanding policy issues
  • current programmes
  • recommendations for draft legislation
  • significant appointments or other decisions that are likely to be required in the six months immediately post-election.

The BIM gives a new Minister enough information to meet their initial requirements but is not intended to be a detailed analysis of the portfolio or policy issues. Ministers can call for a fuller briefing on issues of interest and importance to them. This allows the BIM to be wide ranging and cover the breadth of the portfolio, while still being concise.

The BIM is confidential to the Minister and it is up to the Minister to decide if, and when, the BIM is released, subject to the provisions of the OIA.  The portfolio or lead Minister may authorise the agency to provide copies to Associate Ministers.

Agencies may seek advice from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as they plan and draft their briefings.

Usually, a BIM is drafted before the outcome of a general election is known. Draft BIMs can be reviewed and adjusted once the outcome of the general election is known, taking into account the incoming government’s priorities, including coalition or support agreements and the incoming Minister’s knowledge of the portfolio and their preferred communication.

Generally, the BIM is provided to Ministers following their appointment ceremony. However, in some circumstances Ministers can be briefed in advance.

Read the Cabinet Manual for information about briefings for incoming Ministers.