News 5th March 2018

Senate Estimates questions about the OGP.

by Peter Timmins

In Senate Estimates  last week Senator McAllister (Labor NSW) asked questions of officers from Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet about the Open Government Partnership.

The relevant extract from the transcript is reproduced below.

Nothing particularly new to those following this closely emerged.

One line of questioning by Senator McAllister was her interest in whether reaction is being sought to ‘the success or otherwise’ of the first national action plan.

While the government’s self assessment report and the yet to be published Independent Review by Daniel Stewart were mentioned in this context, no one drew attention to our recently published overview which revealed disappointment with action to date on some commitments and with the failure of some agencies to fully engage with civil society in the spirit of partnership.


Senator McALLISTER: I want to ask about the Open Government National Action Plan. We talked about this the last time we were here, although we were interrupted by the bells. Can you explain to me what the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s role is in relation to the Open Government National Action Plan?

Mr Sterland : PM&C coordinates that plan and coordinates our international engagement in it. We co-chair the Open Government Forum, which is a set of government officials working with civil society representatives to oversee the implementation of that plan.

Senator McALLISTER: How many staff are allocated to this task?

Mr Sterland : I might ask my colleague Lee Steel to answer that. She heads up the unit that carries that responsibility.

Ms Steel : We have two staff members working full time on Open Government Partnership. We also have another manager of the team who works part of his time on these matters and part of his time on other matters. And it occupies part of my role as well.

Senator McALLISTER: Okay, so two full-time staff and two others spending some time on this. Is there an internal budget allocation?

Ms Steel : Yes, there is. Currently we have funding set aside for our annual contribution to the international forum, which is approximately US$100,000 per annum. We also have some operating costs, mostly for the meetings of the Open Government Partnership forum—travel for members, catering et cetera. For the meetings to date this financial year, we’ve spent just over $9,000.

Senator McALLISTER: So that is not including the allocation of staff resources, and the staff resources are presumably the primary costs.

Ms Steel : That’s correct; they’re departmental.

Senator McALLISTER: I asked a question, question on notice No. 286, and it was a question regarding time lines for completion of certain elements within the Open Government National Action Plan. I was directed off to Treasury. Why was that?

Ms Steel : We play a support role, particularly as secretariat support, for the Open Government Forum, but also maintaining whole-of-government reporting. We don’t seek to duplicate or oversight directly other departments’ commitments under the Open Government Partnership.

Senator McALLISTER: But if you are coordinating and reporting, surely this suggests that you are asking other departments what the timetable is for completion of various commitments that they’ve made under the plan?

Ms Steel : That’s correct. We seek updates every few months.

Senator McALLISTER: So why don’t you know when Treasury is going to complete this task and what the new timetable is?

Ms Steel : We do have advice from Treasury—the most recent is from a couple of weeks ago—on their current estimates. It’s not specific to a particular time frame. Would you be referring to the beneficial ownership commitment?

Senator McALLISTER: Correct.

Ms Steel : We understand that the government is currently considering what action may be needed to increase the transparency of beneficial ownership. Treasury haven’t provided us with a particular time frame, but they are still hopeful of meeting the original time frame set out in the national action plan and completing that commitment within the life of the current national action plan, which goes through to June this year. For any more detail, we’d have to refer you to the Department of Treasury.

Senator McALLISTER: Okay. I understand that work is being done at the moment on a second national action plan.

Ms Steel : That’s correct.

Senator McALLISTER: So what are the timetables for that?

Ms Steel : We commenced public consultations a week ago, starting with an online forum to seek input. We are also conducting a series of face-to-face consultations in March in a number of capital cities. We have a current program of the first consultation in Canberra on 14 March, followed by Perth on 16 March. In the following week we have Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane on, I believe, the Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of that week.

Senator McALLISTER: And does this process involve asking stakeholders to reflect on the success or otherwise of the first national action plan?

Ms Steel : To an extent, yes, there will be a number of the current commitments that may benefit from continued commitments into the next national action plan—that is, the ambition associated with the current commitments may not be fulfilled in this national action plan, so they would then carry forward.

Senator McALLISTER: By which we should understand that some of the actions in the existing national action plan aren’t going to get completed?

Ms Steel : Not necessarily. The national action plans are only two years in term, and the first national action plan is even shorter than that because it was only launched in December 2016. There’s only so much that can be achieved in an 18-month or two-year national action plan, so the milestones, accordingly, have to be constrained by that time frame in terms of what can be achieved. But the ambition associated with the intent or policy around the commitments may benefit from a more enduring approach.

Senator McALLISTER: You may have misunderstood my original question, which was, ‘Are you asking stakeholders to reflect on how the overall process of having a National Action Plan, having a stakeholder group, implementing it, is going? Is this part of the consultation that you’re doing, at the moment?’

Ms Steel : At this stage, the focus is really ideas around themes and commitments, but we are very interested in stakeholders’ views on how the current National Action Plan is going. For more reflection on how it’s going, we have an independent review mechanism. That’s due to report shortly on how Australia has been going in meeting those achievements. We had been hoping to receive that report from the independent reviewer in February, but we understand it’s still being reviewed by the international organisation.

Senator McALLISTER: Who’s undertaking the review?

Ms Steel : We have an ANU academic, Mr Daniel Stuart.

Senator McALLISTER: So the process is that he undertakes a review. He provides it to the international organisation and they conduct some kind of quality control exercise, in relation to the review. It’s provided to Prime Minister and Cabinet. Do you expect it will be published?

Ms Steel : Yes, we do expect it will be published.

Senator McALLISTER: Do you have a revised timetable?

Ms Steel : We haven’t been able to obtain that. We’ve been seeking updates, but the reviewer wasn’t sure himself. We also had our own self-review mechanism, which was completed on time last September, where Australia reviews its own progress to date. Given the short time frame, it was fairly preliminary, because it was within 12 months of the initiation of the first National Action Plan. But it is a requirement, under open government, for those regular review points.

Senator McALLISTER: Has that internal review been made public?

Ms Steel : Yes, it has. It’s available on our website.


Senator McALLISTER: Is there any intention, Ms Steel, in the second National Action Plan, to establish any goals relating to corruption in the Australian Public Service?

Ms Steel : I think it’s too early to say. We’ve barely started our consultations with civil society. I wouldn’t want to make any assumptions about the interests of what should be in the next National Action Plan, and it would also still have to go to government for consideration.

Senator McALLISTER: Are you preparing any materials for these consultations?

Ms Steel : We have released three short discussion starters to help aid initial ideas around what areas might be of interest for people in the next National Action Plan. We’re also working on a further two discussion starters on the basis of feedback from civil society members of the Open Government Forum. The three that have been settled are available on our website, and two we hope to add to the website by the end of this week.

Senator McALLISTER: The latest Public Service Commission State of the Service report found that five per cent, or 4,900, surveyed government staff said they had seen corrupt behaviour, a figure that has risen steadily since the survey back in 2013-14 found just 2.6 per cent had witnessed it in their workplaces. Is that information featured in any of the material that you’ve developed or are developing?

CHAIR: And that will have to be the last question, Senator McAllister.

Ms Steel : I don’t believe so.

Senator McALLISTER: May I ask one more, Chair? It’s a yes/no question.

CHAIR: Just one.

Senator McALLISTER: Is there any work being done on a scheme that might approximate a national integrity commission?

Ms Steel : Again, the consultations for the next national action plan are still very early. We don’t yet have ideas about what will be in that report.

Senator McALLISTER: Thanks.