Points of View 18th May 2016

Reflections on Australia’s first National Action Plan for Open Government

by Rosie Williams

This post is based on a post by Rosie Williams (BA Sociology) to the AOGPN Google Group and forms part of a discussion evaluating the success of Australia’s first National Action Plan for Open Government.

The Australian government announced various actions to coincide with the UK Anti-Corruption Summit  including positive steps in the area of transparency and accountability:

  • increased funding to the Australian Tax Office (ATO) to fight tax evasion,
  • re-funding the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC),
  • the announcement of a beneficial owners registry and now the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI).

I suspect that the beneficial owners registry is more a result of the Panama Papers than the OGP and on the negative side we have the bureaucracy making statements about curtailing the reach of FOI on the very same day we drafted the Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan (NAP) ‘Commitments’, and all the other concerns that didn’t rate a mention during the drafting event :

  • the policy to for ISP’s to retain personal meta-data,
  • de-anonymising the Census,
  • the implications for press freedom & whistleblowers in the Border Force Act.

I think we need to be careful that our expectations are not being manipulated so that we end up thinking that something like the government decision to restore funding to the OAIC (to some extent) is some kind of win when it should never have been cut in the first place.

To evaluate the worth of the NAP and it’s value to Australia is quite difficult when announcements are made without any reference to the OGP and NAP. Presumably the point of the NAP is that civil society (ie people on this list) get to oversee the implementation of these initiatives.

One of the reasons I worked hard at the drafting event to get the open data commitments documented (in the face of being told they were unnecessary as the agency wanted to implement them regardless of the OGP) was for the reason that the OGP is supposed to be a partnership. There’s no point having a lead agency plan changes to various functionality that is supposed to meet the needs of civil society without consulting and working with civil society throughout the implementation. Otherwise we will just end up with what we have now in open data: systems that barely anyone knows about which do not meet any needs because various interest groups and the general public are not involved in the planning.

The whole point of the OGP, I gather, is supposed to put in place processes which make government better informed and responsive to the needs of the public though actual engagement with us, whereas it seems to me that this has been a lesson that the bureaucrats find very difficult to understand even when they think we are on the same page.

I’d like to evaluate the NAP against the full context of the concerns Australians have with open government across the board rather than just what ended up in the ‘Commitments‘. Elsewhere, Chris Snow quite rightly points out the scope of consultation was problematic and in my mind there are some pretty major problems with how ideas got limited by the way the consultation and drafting were carried out.

It is worth remembering that it is not our job to create a ‘win’ on the global stage for government. This is supposed to be about society not about placating a government that appears to be moving against the rights of citizens when actions across the board are considered. That such a government could easily get membership of the OGP just on the basis of existing laws without any reference to how Australians feel about how these laws are being implemented, to me, calls into question the value of the Open Government Partnership itself.

For the NAP to be useful to Australians it has to provide something that business as usual does not. Given the NAP has not been mentioned in relation to any significant announcements makes its value difficult to ascertain and if there is no proper partnership with civil society that further questions its value. When and if the NAP Commitments are published that may clear up some of these questions however I think it will be difficult to determine just from the NAP whether actions will be implemented in a manner consistent with the role civil society expects. That there seemed to be an effort on the day to keep the open data Commitments out of the NAP itself (despite agreeing to them in principle) does not auger well in my mind to a commitment to public partnership.

In summary, if it is up to this little group and the members it elects to form the group working with government on behalf of all Australians then I think it behooves us to take into our consideration all the issues that did not make it into the foreshortened consultation and which have ultimately rated no mention in the resulting plan rather than simply evaluating it on the basis of the tiny number of milestones that did make it through what was, by all accounts, a very questionable process.
Rosie Williams, May 9th

Rosie Williams is an open data consultant, and runs infoaus.net