Thursday, September 26, 2019

Improving participation in government

The government is currently considering whether to hold another review of the OIA, and will supposedly have a decision by the end of the month. Meanwhile, writing in Stuff, open government advocate Andrew Ecclestone argues that any review should go back to first principles, and enable greater participation in government:

People don't often ask what the purposes of the OIA are, but the framers of the law, the Danks Committee, intended they should be its guiding spirit. Their powerful opening statement said: "The case for more openness in government is compelling. It rests on the democratic principles of encouraging participation in public affairs and ensuring the accountability of those in office."

Crucially, they put public participation ahead of accountability of ministers and officials. The Labour Party's vision for public services happily reinforces that, saying they should enable 'an active participatory democracy'.

This is vital, since 'accountability' means the public can gain access to information after decisions have been taken, but 'participation' means earlier disclosure that allows the public to influence those decisions before they are taken.

We've all seen government "consultations" which were a stitch-up, a box-ticking exercise on decisions made long before. And currently the Act is used to protect this, particularly with s9(2)(f)(iv), the "confidential advice" clause, which exists specifically to protect the "right" of the government "to take advice and to deliberate on it, in private, and without fear of premature disclosure" - that is, to make decisions in secret, and present them to us dirty peasants as a fait accompli, cutting us out of the process completely. And there's a perfect example of this on this very issue, with the Ministry of Justice using it to withhold the analysis of submissions on the OIA review, preventing the public from seeing it and judging for itself whether a review is necessary. (You can also look at most "consultation" or select committee processes, where seeking information to enable participation in them runs straight into this wall of secrecy. Its almost as if they don't want you to be able to make an informed contribution and properly critique their position...)

The OIA is meant to exist to enable participation. In practice, it is used to stop it. A review should look at that, and how to reverse it. That will no doubt make the Sir Humphries in Thorndon deeply uncomfortable. But its our government, not theirs.