Friday, September 18, 2015

Open Government: SSC changes its mind on transparency and participation

Back in August, the government finally appointed the Open Government Partnership Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG). The SAG is supposed to assist with developing, implementing, and evaluating our commitments under the OGP by "providing constructive advice, communicating openly and engaging with the New Zealand public". As part of this, SSC promised in its terms of reference that the group would be open and transparent:

The Terms of Reference, agenda, minutes and all papers of the Stakeholder Advisory Group (and any working groups) will be published on the State Services Commission’s website.

The agenda and papers for Stakeholder Advisory Group meetings will be published five working days in advance of each meeting of the Group, to enable public participation. The draft minutes of Stakeholder Advisory Group meetings will be circulated to Group members no later than five working days after the meeting, and published on the SSC website two weeks after the meeting.

The suggestion was of an open and participatory policy development process.

The reality turns out to be a little different. Nothing has been published on the website, and the SSC has refused to release the promised material under the OIA. Why? Because they've changed their mind on transparency and participation:
The purpose for the original planned approach to distribution of papers (i.e. that agendas and papers for Group meetings will be made available 5 days before the meeting) was to enable the Group to have the benefit of public feedback in its discussions. However, once we established the Group and moved to undertaking meetings in practice, we quickly identified that making all papers available prior to the meeting and minutes immediately afterwards will be both administratively difficult, and also could constrain the ability of some officials to discuss matters with the Group in a free and frank manner, for example, to present material had not yet been to Ministers or which is in early development.

In other words, participation and transparency go out the window in favour of the usual secrecy. And the vehicle which is supposed to enable public feedback and the co-creation of policy with civil society will instead be co-opted to serve the interests of the Wellington policy machine. And then they wonder why people think there's no fucking point engaging with this farce...

(There's also an odd mindset on display from SSC: releasing everything is "administratively difficult". Setting up a complicated review and decision-making process before release isn't. This isn't about difficulty; its about control-freakery).

From an OIA point of view, the decision is dubious: I'm not sure you can withhold release under s18(d) when you haven't yet decided what is to be made public and when. And you certainly can't withhold everything on the basis that "the bulk" of it will (probably, maybe, sometime) be made public. I'm currently seeking clarification on these points before deciding whether to escalate this to the Ombudsman.

But once again, its a terrible look: the government's policy on open government is anything but.