Friday, May 11, 2018

An impoverished idea of public participation

DPMC Chief Executive Andrew Kibblewhite and Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier have a joint article in the latest Policy Quarterly on Free and frank advice and the Official Information Act: balancing competing principles of good government. The article attempts to give a joint view on the issue in order to reduce uncertainty about what will be released and what may be withheld by public servants fearful of public scrutiny. Much of it rehashes Kibblewhite's speeches on the issue, and there's some discussion of the Ombudsman's recently updated guidance as well. But there's one bit by the Ombudsman which is deeply concerning, where he talks about protecting advice at different stages of the policy process:

If I liken this approach to a potential journey with four phases, the first phase is alerting the minister that a journey may be needed, and indicating some possible routes. It is impossible to say at this early stage whether the journey will actually take place, or if it does what route the journey will take. If the minister indicates potential interest in embarking on this journey, the second phase is becoming clearer as to what the destination might be.

During these early stages, advice is more likely to require protection on the basis that disclosure would prejudice the future free and frank exchange of opinions necessary for the effective conduct of public affairs. However, general information could be released at this time about the policy’s scope or terms of reference, and the development plan or stages of policy development ahead (including timeframes for any public consultations and final decisions).

The third phase of the journey will involve reasonable certainty of the route and likely destination. By this time I think the principles of participation in democracy should weigh heavily...

So, the Ombudsman, who is meant to be the defender of transparency and the public participation it enables, thinks the public shouldn't be able to have a say on policy until the government has already decided what's going to happen. To put things back into his metaphor, in his view we don't get to decide where we're going to go, how we're going to get there, or even if we're going to go on a trip at all. But we might get to choose the music we listen to or which cafe we stop at along the way, if the government hasn't already made up its mind about these things.

No matter which way you look at it, this is a deeply impoverished view of public participation. Pretty obviously, it reflects central government's view of this - where they make the decisions, and public "consultation" is simply a rubberstamp designed to build legitimacy rather than give us a real say. But public participation is supposed to serve the interests of the people, not the government, and the Ombudsman is supposed to protect it. How the fuck is this supposed to be guarding the mana of the people?