Monday, September 14, 2015

Open Government: Ways forward

Today I went to the Open Government Partnership engagement seminar, being held by Independent Reporting Mechanism's Steven Price as a way of testing how civil society felt about the government's action plan. The overall mood was one of dissatisfaction, especially with the (required) consultation process. I think its fair to say that the various civil society groups represented felt that the consultation process was a waste of their time, and the outcomes predetermined. It is the biggest and most obvious thing the government needs to do better when developing their next Action Plan next year.

Unfortunately we didn't get round to talking about what to me was the most interesting topic: what should be in that Action Plan. What specific, measurable, achievable and additional commitments could New Zealand make in the open government area? Here's a few thoughts:

  • First and foremost, reform of the Official Information Act. The Law Commission reviewed the Act back in 2012, and the government has basicly shown no interest in their recommendations. Meanwhile the Ombudsman is currently doing their own review of OIA practices. Together these reviews should give us a clear picture of what needs to change in both the Act and how it is implemented, and the government should make it a priority. (I don't agree with all of the Law Commission's recommendations, and they were remarkably unambitious, but there's stuff there which can be done)
  • A commitment to proactive publication of Cabinet documents. Ministries often put Cabinet papers and minutes online when a decision is announced, and this is great, but Cabinet itself is a black hole at the heart of government. And its very hard to see why we can't see the topics of Cabinet discussion after they've happened, or why the titles of papers can't be released (there may be some cases where they can justifiably be withheld, but at present its all secret). The big barrier here is the culture of secrecy within the Cabinet Office, which is opposed to any transparency at all in this area.
  • Electronic Public Records along the line of the Norwegian OEP. Basicly, a searchable database of government documents, allowing people to locate documents then submit an OIA request to view them. Specific commitments could include an initial trial, followed by gradual expansion throughout the public sector.
  • An open diplomacy law, requiring at the least the government to tell us what it tells other governments in treaty negotiations (the culture of secrecy around the TPP was mentioned several times at the seminar as an example of anti-open-government actions)
  • Implement the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) which requires governments and businesses to publish information on money-flows from the mining industries. Sadly the government's interest in this so far is whether they can use it as an engagement scam to co-opt and silence environmentalists.
  • Implement the Open Contracting partnership, which requires transparency around the awarding and performance of government contracts.
Of course, any of these actions would require real ambition and a commitment to transparency from the government. But that's what the Open Government Partnership is meant to be all about. And if National isn't willing to show that commitment, you have to ask why they signed up in the first place.