Uncategorised 10th March 2016

Are the government’s unilateral Grand Challenge choices grand or challenging enough?

by Peter Timmins

David Solomon AM writes:

I am seriously concerned about and disturbed by the grand challenges the government proposes to include in the Australian National Action Plan, namely, improved public services and more effectively managing public resources.

The Government’s website – Open Government Partnership – Australia – explains under the heading “Preparing the National Action Plan” –

“The Open Government Partnership (OGP) requires broad consultation for the development of member countries’ National Action Plans (NAP). This provides the public, civil society, and the private sector with the opportunity to participate in the process, and suggest commitments for governments to undertake.

The OGP National Action Plan Guidance Note says –

National Action Plans are at the core of a country’s participation in OGP.They are the product of a co-creation process in which government and civil society define ambitious commitment to foster transparency, accountability and public participation.

The Government is clearly committed to the two grand challenges it has announced. As Peter Timmins noted, Helen Owens, an Assistant Secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, said recently:

“The aim for the first Australian Government National Action Plan is to include ambitious actions that support the Open Government Partnership (OGP) grand challenges of “improving public services” and “better managing public resources.”

But there was no consultation (and certainly not the “broad consultation” that is supposedly required) involved in the adoption of these grand challenges, no opportunity for “the public, civil society and the private sector … to participate in the process”. They were certainly not the “product of a co-creation process” between government and civil society.

There appears to have been no attempt by government to justify the selection of these matters as “grand challenges”.

The Government document “Preparing the National Action Plan” provides some detail of the two “grand challenges” in these terms –

“Improving Public Services – measures that address the full spectrum of citizen services including health, education, criminal justice, water, electricity, telecommunications, and any other relevant service areas by fostering public service improvement or private sector innovation; and

More Effectively Managing Public Resources – measures that address budgets, procurement, natural resources, and foreign assistance.”

No doubt these matters are important. Indeed they seem to be addressed regularly by government agencies, including in particular, the Public Service Commission and (especially the second matter) the Auditor-General, as well as by the Parliament through Estimates Committees and the like. The first was canvassed at length in Professor Peter Shergold’s report, Learning from Failure: Why large government policy initiatives have gone so badly wrong in the past and how the chances of success in the future can be improved, which was presented to Government in August 2015, and is being followed up by relevant agencies such as the Public Service Commission.

But while these matters are important, it is doubtful if people outside government – the public generally, people in civil society and the private sector – would rate them as among the “grand challenges” that should be addressed in the very first National Action Plan that Australia adopts under the Open Government Partnership.

Outside government it is already clear that more importance is attached to the problem of improving public integrity, and addressing issues concerning transparency, accountability and citizen participation.

Such challenges would require consideration of commitments to an anti-corruption agenda that might include a national anti-corruption commission, political donation and lobbying reforms, and the broadening of whistleblower protections; recognition of the importance of and adequate funding for an open government, transparency watchdog such as the Australian Information Commissioner, a position and functions the government has been intent on abolishing since May 2014 and unsuccessful only because of staunch opposition in the Senate; and  moves to modernise and bring national freedom of information law and implementation into line with 21st century public expectations and emerging best practice in Australia and elsewhere.

Limited citizen participation is one of many reasons for the decline in trust in government.

Addressing challenges of this kind would reflect the main action plan characteristics specified in the OGP Guidance Note.

In the Australian context, there is nothing particularly “grand” about the challenges the government appears to have decided to set for itself.

Not a sham, perhaps, but certainly a great distance from what people outside government would consider should be central to the proposed Australian National Action Plan.

I urge members of the network and others who feel as I do that democratic practices in Australia must improve to let government know through the OGP consultation what you regard as important high priorities, and what should be done to address them.

David Solomon.

Dr David Solomon AM, a member of Accountability Roundtable is Chair of the Australian Open Government Partnership Network.

Dr Solomon was the Queensland Integrity Commissioner for a five year term. Previously he was a member of the Federal Government Gov 2.0 Task Force and chaired the independent committee that reviewed Queensland’s Freedom of Information legislation in 1997-8, resulting in the passage of the new Right to Information Act. He was chairman of the Queensland Electoral and Administrative Review Commission in 1992-3. Dr Solomon as a journalist worked in Canberra over a long period covering politics and then the law and has written 11 books mainly in the fields of parliament, politics, the High Court and constitutional law.