Friday, April 08, 2016

What should be in NZ's OGP action plan?

Back in 2014, New Zealand joined the Open Government Partnership, an alliance of governments aiming to increase transparency, accountability, and participation in government. Unfortunately, our participation so far has been a bit shit, and things look set to continue that way.

Its currently 82 days until New Zealand's second national action plan must be presented to the OGP. The State Services Commission, the agency responsible for managing our participation, hasn't even started consultation yet, let alone done the required co-creation with civil society. So, in the absence of them leading a conversation on what should be in the action plan, I thought I'd start one of my own.

Our last action plan contained ambitionless "commitments", all of which were things we were doing anyway. SSC blamed a lack of time for this - they started so late that there was no time to agree to anything significant, so the status quo won by default. But not having time doesn't mean not doing anything new - there are reforms we can take off the shelf, which have been kicking around for years and on which policy work is largely done, and agree to enact them. Here's a few from my pet area, freedom of information, based largely on the Law Commisison's 2012 review of the Official Information Act.

The Official Information Act 1982 should be amended to provide that any person (whether a citizen of New Zealand, resident in New Zealand or otherwise) can make a request for information, consistent with equivalent provisions of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987.
This would bring the OIA into consistency with the LGOIMA and Privacy Act, as well as international best practice (R134 from the Law Commission report). A minor change, but a useful one.
The New Zealand Government should legislate to require government agencies to take all reasonably practicable steps to proactively make official information publicly available, subject to the withholding grounds of the Official Information and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Acts.
Again from the Law Commission, and while it could be seen as legislatively codifying existing practice (an awful lot of stuff is proactively released already), it would also help drive it further. This one has moderate impact, and is potentially transformative if agencies pick it up and run with it. And that would make it more effective than anything SSC promised in the first action plan.
The New Zealand Government should proactively publish all Cabinet papers, agendas, and minutes, subject only to redactions consistent with those permitted by the Official Information Act 1982.
You don't need legislation to proactively release, and this would be a solid sign that the government was leading by example. It would also gain international attention - other countries are already boggled that we casually and routinely release Cabinet material, so committing to do so as a matter of course would astonish them. The measure has wide political support - DPF has consistently advocated for it, and it was part of Labour's 2011 open government policy. And its just a good idea to tell us what our government is doing on a week-to-week basis.
The New Zealand Government should establish a working party to review the schedules to the Official Information Act 1982 and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 and other relevant legislation to ensure that all agencies which should be within the scope of the legislation are included.
Recommendation 121 from the Law Commission, basically a review and tidy-up, but it would force the government to look at bodies currently excluded (such as Parliament, the Security and Intelligence Committee, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and port companies) and state publicly why they should be excluded.

Most of these proposals are minor; the scary thing is that they are still far better than the bullshit and waffle SSC seems to have decided we're going to get. They're also clearly relevant to OGP goals, and specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound - unlike SSC's waffle.

There are plenty of other things which could be in the action plan, even given the time constraints; company and trust beneficial ownership is an obvious topical example. And it speaks volumes that SSC isn't considering any of this stuff, and is instead looking for existing bureaucratic waffle to pad out its "commitments", rather than committing to real (even if minor) reform.