News 5th February 2016

Network draws attention to low key start to national consultation and gaps in policy framework

by Peter Timmins

The Steering Committee has written to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet commenting on the government’s low key launch of this important initiative and what it sees as gaps and weaknesses in the framework for development of the national action plan, and in supporting material published by the department to date.

Submission from Dr David Solomon, 2 February 2016

I am writing on behalf of the Steering Committee of the Australian Open Government Partnership Network (AOGPN).

The AOGPN was established in December 2015 as a coalition of individuals and organisations for the purpose of engaging with government in the development of Australia’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan and participating in efforts to enhance and improve democratic practices in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

The network will provide a forum for the exchange of information and ideas on areas for reform, seek to ensure the action plan is developed in the true spirit of partnership, and work to assist government in the determination of priorities for consideration.

Current Steering Committee members are:

Dr David Solomon (Accountability Roundtable), Chair

Dr Nicholas Gruen (Open Knowlege Australia)

Jon Lawrence (Electronic Frontiers Australia)

Dr Johan Lidberg (School of Media, Arts and Journalism, Monash University)

Phil Newman (Transparency International Australia)

Kat Szuminska (OpenAustralia Foundation)

Craig Thomler (Gov 2.0 Advocate)

Peter Timmins, Convener

A number of other organisations and individuals have joined or are in the process of doing so.

At the invitation of the OGP Support Unit, Kat Szuminska attended the Civil Society Leaders Workshop in The Hague from 21-23 January.

The Network has a webpage at and will shortly have a more comprehensive web presence, encouraging other organisations and individuals to contribute to the second phase of the consultation now underway.

The following issues and concerns arise from what we have seen so far as the government moves ahead on this important initiative.

Low key initiative

Given the importance of reform and the opportunity provided to improve how government operates including through citizen engagement, the announcement of Australia’s intention to proceed to membership is off to a low key start.

While December/January present problems for effective communication, the topic and partnership element warrants more vigorous attempts to engage and encourage participation from potentially interested stakeholder organisations and members of the public.

While the government launched the OGPau website and funded four information sessions in December, for an initiative supported by the Prime Minister and entire Cabinet this has been a particularly low key start to what should be substantial national engagement activity.

The Prime Minister has not issued media releases specifically related to the OGP membership decision or the subsequent national consultation. There has been no public media statements on the topic by the Prime Minister or any of his Cabinet Ministers.

While the Prime Minister’s letter to the OGP Steering Committee Co-chairs announcing the Australian Government’s commitment to OGP Membership is readily available on the OGP’s website, it is not obvious on the website of the Prime Minister, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet or on the consultation website.

As such the government appears to have done little to bring the initiative to public attention.

Unfortunately, there has been virtually no mention of Australia’s OGP membership process in mainstream media.

The four information sessions held in the pre Christmas period at short notice were welcome but one meeting in each location, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra appears to have had limited impact and does not constitute a national campaign of engagement.

Australians who have closely followed the development and growth of the OGP in recent years have located the Australian government’s consultation materials published online. However these materials are not readily available to interested parties who have not been informed of the process by the government.

In addition, locating and responding to the present consultation represents a challenge even for those aware of the process.

While the OGPau website can be discovered by those aware of the process, there is no obvious link to the Wiki, where the consultation process is largely taking place.

It is the view of the Network that this low key approach to engagement puts at risk Australia’s membership process. It substantially raises the probability of Australia’s National Action Plan being rejected by the OGP on the grounds of insufficient consultation, as was New Zealand’s initial OGP membership attempt.

General approach

It was unfortunate that the Government, with no prior consultation, announced it had chosen two Grand Challenges from the OGP list that did not include Public Integrity.

Issues related to anti-corruption are certain to arise during the course of consultation. Australia dropped 10 positions in the recently published Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. While it is pleasing to see in the published FAQs that nothing is off the table, this should have been the starting position for consultation and public engagement.

The absence of a formal high level group within government to provide the necessary leadership, direction, coordination and oversight of the OGP initiative is a surprising omission from the published framework. So too is the lack of a formal mechanism that would bring government and civil society together at various decision points during the public consultation, decision making and implementation phases of the National Action Plan. The OGP itself with a mix of government and CSO members and government and CSO co-chairs provides an exemplary model and there are examples from other OGP members that Australia could emulate quickly and without disrupting the current process and timeline.

The lack of a genuine consultation mechanism between government and civil society is an issue that needs to be on the agenda for the meeting proposed for the end of the OGP membership consultation phase in early March.

The Steering Committee echoes comments made by others that Australian states, territories and local government must be part of the open government journey. The OGP is encouraging the involvement of sub-national governments in open government initiatives. While the National Action Plan should be the Australian Government’s plan, states, territories and local government should be part of a discussion and debate on issues that cut across all levels of government.

The continuing stand-off between the Government and the Senate over the future of the Office of Australian Information Commissioner is a serious concern that should be dealt with separately from the OGP membership process by withdrawal of the bill and reinstatement of funding for all OAIC functions.

The government position that the office is to be abolished, removing a cornerstone of the 2010 FOI reforms. flies in the face of the Prime Minister’s proclamation of “Australia’s long proud tradition of open and transparent government.”

As the inaugural Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, wrote recently, “The FOI Act is too important either to languish or to go through periodic upheaval as it has for more than 30 years.”

Vision and Background

The Network may have more to add about the published Vision and Background material.

At this stage we note that there is no mention in the published materials of the Sustainable Development Goals that were adopted unanimously at the UN General Assembly last year, to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, or to Australia’s involvement in the work of the G20 on anti corruption matters.

The OGP encourages support for the Joint Declaration on Open Government for the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Forty eight governments have endorsed the declaration to date including Indonesia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States. Australia should follow this lead.

Australia ratified UNCAC in 2005 but is yet to adopt an anti-corruption plan required by the convention.

The Attorney general’s Department website makes much of Australia’s leadership role in the development of the G20 2015-16 G20 Anti Corruption Plan.

The Plan states:

“G20 countries commit to leading by example in ensuring our government agencies, policies, and officials implement international best practices for public sector transparency and integrity. The (Anti Corruption Working Group) has identified public procurement, open data, whistleblower protections,
immunities for public officials, fiscal and budget transparency, and standards for public officials as issues which merit particular attention.”

The G20 Leaders Communique issued in Turkey in November 2015 further states:

“16.In support of our growth and resilience agenda, we remain committed to building a global culture of intolerance towards corruption through effectively implementing the 2015-2016 G20 Anti-Corruption Action Plan. We endorse the G20 High-Level Principles on Integrity and Transparency in the Private Sector which will help our companies comply with global standards on ethics and anti-corruption. Ensuring the integrity and transparency of our public sectors is essential. In this regard, we endorse the G20 Anti-Corruption Open Data Principles and the G20 Principles for Promoting Integrity in Public Procurement, and we welcome the ongoing work on asset disclosure frameworks…”

The Agreed Documents that accompany the Communique include G20 High-Level Principles on Private Sector Transparency and Integrity; G20 Principles for Promoting Integrity in Public Procurement and G20 Anti-Corruption Open Data Principles.

Next steps

We look forward to ongoing dialogue with the Australian Government as the consultation proceeds.

Please publish this submission on the Open Government Partnership Australia website.

David Solomon

Chairman, Steering Committee

Australian Open Government Partnership Network

2 February 2016