Points of View 9th June 2017
Reflections on open government
by Peter Timmins
Interview published in OGP Newsletter June 2017
Faces of Open Government
How did you get involved in open government – what is your personal story about why you joined the movement?
I became aware of the Open Government Partnership the day after the inaugural meeting in New York on 20 September 2011, when I noticed Australia was not represented.This was puzzling, even more so when it turned out that Australian Foreign Minister Rudd was in New York at the time and Australia had not replied to an invitation to join as a founding member.
I posted on my blog that day that Australia should be a willing, proud and enthusiastic participant in this initiative and urged the government to get on board.
Thus began a long on-again-off-again journey spanning time in office of three prime ministers. Prime Minister Turnbull committed Australia to participation in the OGP in November 2015.
The personal story of my interest in open government extends all the way back to the 1970s. I was Political Counsellor in the Australian Embassy in Washington throughout the Watergate era, the Ford presidency and the election of President Jimmy Carter- a time of excessive secrecy, cynicism and declining trust in government and mounting pressure for more openness and transparency.
By interesting coincidence, the Australian Government elected in December 1972 had come to office with a commitment to introduce freedom of information legislation along the lines of the US FOI act of 1966.
With Canberra therefore interested in US law and practice, the Embassy reported on FOI developments that included major improvements to the law in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation when the House and the Senate overrode President Ford’s veto in 1974.
Of course, Watergate unravelled not because of FOI, but because of the sleuthing of Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post and the Senate Judiciary Committee. My four years there were interesting times to be in Washington.
In 1984, back in Australia, and after I had resigned from the foreign service, I started an information brokering business that monitored government and parliament information, and started using the relatively new Australian FOI act that, after a decade of debate, came into force in 1982. I made many FOI applications testing the new law and ran a number of appeal cases.
Beginning in 1988, I played a consultancy role advising on the implementation of FOI at state level. I started writing the Open and Shut Blog in 2006 and since that time gradually moved from consultancy work into public advocacy for open government. Since 2011, this has included action with like-minded individuals and organizations to convince government to join the OGP.
I have been the Interim Convener of the Australian Open Government Partnership Network since it formed within weeks of the Prime Minister’s announcement, and a member of the government’s working group established in August 2015. (Correction August 2016.)
What’s your “open government pitch” – how do you sell the idea to the uninitiated?
There’s nothing original in my approach- access to government information is a foundation stone of democratic government. Government must be open, transparent and accountable for the exercise of power and the use of public funds. Citizens have the right to know what government knows, unless there are clear, legislated public interests that are better served by withholding information at least for a time.
Where the line can or should be drawn between the government preference for secrecy (to enable it to get on the with the job) and the need for an informed public is an ongoing issue. Hence the need for strong advocacy. Everyone has a stake in this. Voices count. More voices count more.
You recently were awarded a Press Freedom Medal by the Australian Press Council, for your service as a leading expert on freedom of information and getting Australia on board with OGP. How is press freedom relevant to the open government agenda?
I was surprised and honoured to receive this award, which I regard as a tribute to all those engaged in Australia’s OGP journey. Freedom of the press and freedom of information came together markedly for me when I was the Deputy Chair of the Independent Audit of Free Speech in Australia, a report commissioned by Australia’s leading media organisations in 2007.
The media plays a crucial role in contributing to public knowledge and understanding of what government does or plans to do in our name. Government can only be held to account if citizens are well informed. Journalists and others, including public interest groups, bloggers, and citizen journalists, act as proxies for us in seeking out information vital to this cause.
To quote UNESCO, “Freedom of the press should not be viewed solely as the freedom of journalists to report and comment. It is strongly correlated with the public’s right of access to knowledge and information.” The Audit report of 2007 was instrumental in heightening public awareness about shortcomings in Australian law and practice and led the incoming government at that time to embark on some useful reforms. Ten years on, the need for further reform is evident in light of experience, advances in technology and changing public expectations about access to information.
Australia is implementing its first National Action Plan (NAP). As a member of civil society, what are your hopes for its implementation? Which commitments do you most want to see succeed?
Australia’s first National Action Plan, published in December 2016, contains 15 commitments across a broad range of issues concerning open government, anti-corruption, public integrity, and citizen participation. The breadth and scope of the commitments is welcome- a far cry from the limited vision shown by government when public consultation began.
There are some disappointments, particularly the limited commitment to what are high priorities for civil society- political donations reform and gaps in the national integrity framework. The commitments are all important and the Network will be seeking to hold government accountable as implementation proceeds.
One of a number of commitments on my ‘high hopes’ list is to develop “Information management and access laws fit for the 21st Century”:
“Australia will ensure our information access laws, policies and practices are modern and appropriate for the digital information age. As part of this, we will consider and consult on options to develop a simpler and more coherent framework for managing and accessing government information that better reflects the digital era, including the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act), the Archives Act 1983 (Archives Act) and, where relevant, the Privacy Act 1988 (with primary focus on the Archives Act and FOI Act), which is supported by efficient and effective policies and practice.”
OGP is a partnership of 75 national governments and thousands of civil society organizations. Are there any lessons you’ve learned from looking at and learning from the OGP process in other countries?
The OGP provides the opportunity for all of us to learn from a very broad canvas. For example Ukraine, Mongolia, Romania, Georgia and Bulgaria are among those, along with the United States and Canada, that feature in the OGP guide to “Star Commitments.” The lesson that Australia has much to learn from others, apart from countries we regard as our usual ‘peer group,’ is taking a while to sink in.
We have been under-represented to date in OGP international discussion and debate on new ideas among civil society and between governments. Both sides of the Partnership in Australia need to address this shortcoming.
Some have criticized the “openness” movement, particularly open data and freedom of information advocates, for failing to prioritize security and privacy. What is your response to such criticism? How do you balance privacy and security with the need for transparency?
I don’t know many who advocate complete openness when it comes to access to government information.
Clearly some information, not limited to information about security or information having a privacy dimension, can be highly sensitive and in the public interest should be withheld from disclosure. The key is to ensure that decisions to withhold information are based on identifiable harm to the public interest. The law should reflect this, and decision-makers should be armed with guidance on how to interpret the law in accordance with its spirit and intent.
The starting point must be that the applicant has the right to requested information, unless the public interest is best served by withholding the information at this time. Because of potential overreach, the right to independent speedy review must be safeguarded as well.
You’ve been writing the “Open and Shut” blog since 2006 – long before “open government” became a buzzword. What trends have you seen, both in Australia and globally, in the “openness” agenda and democratic norms?
The internet has had a dramatic effect on public expectations concerning access to information. First generation FOI laws are based on a process of lodging of an application, a delay while the application is considered, and a decision to grant access to all or some requested information often on condition of payment of a fee. For those who consult Dr. Google many times a day, this must seem arcane and something from another age.
Second generation laws have included important advances, prescribing more extensive obligations to proactively publish certain government information.There is still a long way to go to build on this in many countries, including Australia.
Third generation ideas are emerging. Information commissioners in Canada and Scotland have talked about “Transparency by Design.” Record management professionals raise the idea that new records management systems should include a public interface that would provide more and better information about government information holdings to encourage and facilitate requests for access.
Populist, “closed” governments have swept to power all over the globe. What’s the antidote to this trend?
Democracy is a powerful idea, still the best we have when it comes to governance, but we must also recognise and respond to the growing demand for more participative democracy. Those who rest entirely on an historical attachment to representative democracy- vote, then leave the governing to us- play into the hands of those who argue that the system is a failure.
OGP flags improvement in citizen participation as one of the challenges members might address. Citizen participation is more than just good democratic practice – it is recognition as well that wisdom resides inside and outside government. And that genuine effort to engage the public, stakeholders, and experts at various stages in decision making will likely produce better decisions, better prospects of avoiding unexpected consequences, and greater community support for what emerges. History tells us populist closed government is not the answer to current discontent.
What advice do you have for open government newcomers for getting involved in their country’s next National Action Plan?
A national action plan is the opportunity to engage with government on improving democratic practices.
It’s important, demanding work but someone needs to do it – why not you?
Development of the plan will often be the opportunity to propose changes that government would prefer not to talk about. Gather evidence, develop the arguments, look for support.
Understand how government works, be realistic. Don’t let the perfect stand in the way of the good.
Patience is a virtue.
You will be involved in a long game. Every step in the right direction – even small ones – are important.
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