Uncategorised 27th April 2018

Independent review report: underwhelmed by first effort, need to do better next time

by Peter Timmins

The independent report on Australia’s progress in implementing its first OGP National Action Plan by Daniel Stewart of Australian national University is a wake-up call to government and civil society.

The report’s key messages are

  • we didn’t do much of a job in bringing the citizenry into a dialogue about open government reform;
  • none of the commitments that made it into the plan are well-designed;
  • most are vague about outcomes, none are transformative, few ambitious;
  • there was little to show in terms of results after 12 months-the report, just published, covered developments to June 2017.

The report lists a number of government initiatives since 2014 that are at odds with OGP values:

Proposed abolition of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC): Legislation to this effect was withdrawn after languishing in the Senate for two years but
reduction in funding, a succession of acting appointments to the role of Information Commissioner , and a decision to operate with one commissioner not the three parliament considered necessary are seen as undermining the effectiveness of the OAIC and access to government information more broadly.

Retention and use of personal information: legislation introduced to require telecommunications companies to retain telecommunications metadata for two years.
Concerns have been raised over the potential for a wide range of government bodies to access the information and the lack of transparency over access decisions.
And about discouragement of public participation following the disclosure of personal information of welfare recipients who had publicly criticised the use of an automated debt
recovery system.

Use of technology: Public confidence in the use of technology for the delivery of governmentservices has  been affected with criticismof the use of an automated system to identify and assist with the re covery of possible over-payments of welfare benefits. The Minister for Human Services acknowledged that over a nine-month period the ‘Online ComplianceIntervention system’ resulted in nearly 20,000 people being advised that they may owe adebt to the Commonwealth (though these were later revised to zero or reduced). The five-yearly national census, collected online by default for the first time, was affected by substantial security and capacity concerns that prevented online access.

Secrecy in the immigration context:  Concerns over the transparency and accountability of Australia’s immigration processes. The Australian Border Force was criticised for the lack of transparency ofinformation relating to asylum seekers and other unauthorized boat arrivals. Legislation introduced to govern immigration detention facilities included secrecy provisions which may deter scrutiny and potentially interfere with the health and safety of persons held in the facilities. A senate inquiry into conditions in an offshore Regional Processing Centre,
established after more than 2,000 leaked reports of incidents within the Centre were published by the Guardian newspaper, found that ‘no guarantee of transparency and
accountability can be given until significant changes are made and accountability systems are put in place.’

National Security –  the independent national security legislation monitor was introduced in 2010 to review the operation, effectiveness and implications of Australia’s counter-terrorism and national security legislation. The government proposed to abolish the position in 2014. Australia was one of the countries implicated in the revelations by whistleblower Edward
Snow den in 2013. In response, legislation was introduced in 2014 to enhance penalties for the unauthorised use or communication of intelligence information.

Parliamentary entitlements, donations and lobbying reform – the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority was established in 2017 following several high-profile cases of politicians claiming expenses for non-parliamentary related business, and calls for greater transparency and enforcement of parliamentary entitlements generally. A 2014 review of lobbying rules found that ‘Australian codes are, in general, far weaker than the strong statutory regimes operating in Canada and the United States’. Calls for lobbying reform and recognition of the links with political donation regulation continue. Legislation introduced relating to changes to secrecy provisions and foreign donations have been criticised as restricting freedom of
speech and public participation.

Prominence is given to five key recommendations in the Summary:

1. Broaden the range of stakeholders and interests reflected in the open  government process at the commonwealth level, including increasing civil society collaboration in government decision making structures and processes. This should at least result in a new commitment topic for the next action plan.
2. Developing a whole of government approach to enhancing awareness, and support, for open government initiatives, including by monitoring, evaluating and publicizing their
3. Establish a collaborative multi-stakeholder forum to work on establishing a federal anti-corruption agency and lobbying and political donation reform initiatives.
4. Detail a comprehensive review of information management practices within government agencies, including the role and resourcing of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
5. Expand the role of the Open Government Forum to include consideration of opengovernment initiatives at the state and territory level to enhance coordination between
jurisdictions and to explore development of sub-national open government action plans.

However commencing at Page 100. the report includes a longer list of suggestions and recommendations. In brief and emphasis added:

(1) Development of the next national action plan should seek to engage with a wider range of interests, and seek more ambitious commitments, in order to more fully
engage the wider community in open government initiatives.

(2) Greater transparency over how decision making relating to open government commitments within and across government agencies is structured would make it easier for civil society groups to engage with government.

(3) The work on enhancing public participation in government decision making (commitment 15) should be extended to set minimum requirements for consultation for all national action plan commitments in the future.

(4) None of the commitments in the (current) national action plan have been assessed as potentially transformative. Many are not sufficiently specific to be able to confidently assess their
potential, others are limited by not going as far as they could in pursuing the principles of open government. The next action plan commitments could be open to at least publicly
evaluating ambitious transparency, participation or accountability goals. They should be more specific in committing to particular substantive outcomes.

(5) Future commitments to further integrate government information portals,such as grants or digital services marketplaces, harmonising approaches across state and territory governments, such as whistleblower protection , or indeed significant initiatives within individual states and territories should also be reflected in future action plans.

(6) The range of interests reflected in developing future national action plans could be expanded to include groups not directly reflected in the current commitments, including groups representing indigenous, rural communities, disabled, elderly or otherwise politically or economically marginalised people.

(7) Future commitments, particularly where they are ambitious and innovative, should reflect a transparent allocation of resources for their implementation. This should include facilitating contributions from civil society and other interested stakeholders through collaborative forms of engagement.

(8) Overall, the aims of increasing transparency, participation and accountability depend upon an awareness and support of open government initiatives, both within government and in the community. The willingness and capacity of civil society groups to participate in these initiatives and help drive reform is at least in part dependent on the perceived chance of
effecting change due to the level of community and political support. All parties involved, therefore, have a responsibility to promote the open government process.While there may be benefits from open government processes being politically neutral, the involvement of government and opposition ministers helps to promote the real benefits of open government initiatives. Rather than simply providing further opportunities to add to the competition for the attention of government, by reflecting genuinely collaborative processes open government initiatives can drive policy reform. Future action plans should, therefore, reflect a general commitment to open government principles and processes that goes beyond individual policy initiatives. This should include the commitment to specific, ambitious open government outcomes and a willingness to provide for greater accountability in their completion.

The report was open for public comment until 24 April.

The network submitted comments that appear in the next post.