Network members point to shortcomings in draft national action plan
- Limited public engagement-an ongoing problem since Australia’s open government journey commenced in November 2015. The absence of visible public ministerial leadership, support and advocacy for the open government cause is a significant factor contributing to the low level of awareness of the initiative and participation in this process.
- Questionable claims in the draft, for example about success in implementing commitments in the first plan; that the draft ‘builds on the lessons’ of the first plan and consists of a ‘more focussed set of ambitious commitments’; and that the plan has been developed in ‘close collaboration with the Australian community’.
- The absence to date of a high-level government-wide overarching statement of policy intent to open government reform.
- Opaque decision making, for example the basis on which some commitments suggested by civil society are included in the plan but others rejected.
- The vague, bland formulation of most commitments that are included, most of which do not commit to substantive outcomes.
- The lack of anything in the plan that would assuage concerns that ‘business as usual’ not collaboration and partnership will be the approach taken to engagement by agencies as commitments are implemented-as was the case with Plan #1.
The submission is reproduced below.
Signatories include former Queensland Integrity Commissioner Dr David Solomon AM, the Chair of the Government 2.0 Taskforce (2009) Dr Nicholas Gruen, former Queensland Information Commissioner Julie Kinross, academics Professor Moira Paterson and Associate Professor Johan Lidberg, and others who have followed the government’s OGP initiative closely
Contact Peter Timminsemail@example.com for comment or elaboration.
Submission: Australia’s Draft Second National Action Plan
These comments are submitted by Peter Timmins on behalf of the members of the Australian Open Government Partnership Network listed at the conclusion of the submission.
Overall the process followed in development of the draft second Australian National Action Plan and the draft itself is a further disappointment in the Australian Open Government Partnership journey.
- Public engagement‘Support Civic Engagement’ is one of the principles specified in the Open Government
Declaration committed to by Government as a condition of signing up to the Partnership.
Despite frequent calls on government to reach out to broaden civil society and public
engagement on open government and related issues, little has been achieved.
Awareness of the initiative remains low- participation much lower still.
- Questionable claims To cite just three examples in the Introduction section:
- we have “made substantial progress in completing the majority of.. commitments” in the first plan;
- the “second Open Government National Action Plan builds on the lessons and successes of our first Plan. It consists of a more focussed set of ambitious commitments, which will together further open up government…”
- this “plan has been developed in close collaboration with the Australian community.”
On the first example, the assessment published by the Australian Open Government Partnership Network (Network) in February this year highlighted limited progress overall and was critical of the path followed by many agencies – in not getting far in any event:
Little has changed since.
On incomplete commitments, unless they are highlighted in the ongoing plan and in public reporting, there is a risk they will be removed from the reform agenda.
Commitment 3.1-Information access laws for the 21st century– in the current plan is a case in point. Nothing has been heard about decision making on this commitment, and progress in implementation, if any, since December 2017.
On the second example, few of the lessons to be drawn from the Independent Review Mechanism report by Daniel Stewart are reflected in the draft.
The Report’s key messages are
- 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 AP2.
- Developing a whole of government approach to enhancing awareness, and support, for open government initiatives, including by monitoring, evaluating and publicizing their impact.
- Establish a collaborative multi-stakeholder forum to work on establishing a federal anti-corruption agency and lobbying and political donation reform initiatives.
- Detail a comprehensive review of information management practices within government agencies, including the role and resourcing of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
- Expand the role of the Open Government Forum to include consideration of open government initiatives at the state and territory level to enhance coordination between jurisdictions and to explore development of sub-national open government action plans.
The report includes a longer list of suggestions and recommendations (Page 100). They are summarised here (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.
On the third example, the record of public awareness of the OGP initiative and public participation over the last two and a half years speaks for itself.
Little has been done by government to address a problem brought to attention many times since November 2015: the absence publicly of ministerial leadership, advocacy and support for the open government cause.
The response to the current consultation is indicative.
The Canberra face- to- face consultation on this draft on Wednesday June 27 was attended by four people from outside government. Two of the four flew from Sydney for the event, one of the others left early.
Around 20 attended the Melbourne consultation on 29 June.
No face- to- face consultation meetings are scheduled outside Canberra and Melbourne.
Neither scheduled meeting catered for remote access
- High level policy gap
The Network Steering Committee wrote to the minister responsible for co-ordination, Special Minister of State Senator Cormann on 16 May, as follows:
“The second National Action Plan on which work has now commenced is the opportunity to reaffirm publicly the Turnbull government’s policy intention to address the issue of declining trust and confidence through open government reforms and improved democratic practices that make a real difference. In the absence of a high-level whole of government commitment to this end, the plan runs the risk of being seen as an incoherent set of lower priority initiatives rather than a demonstration of serious government intent to deliver better, good government in line with community expectations.”
There has been no reply.
To our knowledge Minister Cormann has not met with CSO representatives to discuss OGP related issues since he assumed responsibility in December 2016.
Australia’s membership of the Open Government Partnership and the associated Action Plans lack (at this stage at least) a high-level government wide statement of policy intention to open government reforms.
The Network Steering Committee suggested, also to no avail, a ministerial statement or media release to coincide with release of the draft plan.
- Are the draft commitments the best ideas on the most important issues?
The draft says that in round one of the current consultation “nearly 60 comments and submissions from over 100 registered users and attendees were received and published.The outcomes of each face-to-face consultation were also published.”
There has been no feedback directly or publicly to suggestions put forward in comments and submissions. Many of these ideas were important and ambitious but for unexplained reasons failed to get past the first hurdle. The lack of so much as acknowledgement of participation and of the contribution of ideas is the antithesis of civic engagement. It dents interest and enthusiasm.
As pointed out in the Stewart independent review report, aspects of decision making on OGP matters are opaque.
How were decisions reached on what suggestions to include in the plan and those to be rejected? Were any submitters asked to develop a detailed proposal ? What if anything has been put to ministers to date?
The proposed commitment Engage Australians in the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service did not appear on any previous government or civil society suggestion list:
“The Government has established an independent review to ensure the APS is fit-for-purpose for the coming decades. The review will examine the capability, culture and operating model of the APS and identify an ambitious program of transformational reforms. The independent panel leading the review will consult widely, both within and outside the APS. The panel will ensure their work is undertaken in an open and transparent manner, in collaboration with the APS and its stakeholders.”
Whilst the APS review may be worthwhile in its own right, the timing suggests its development was un-related to the plan and that it is currently an ill-fit.
- Some proposed commitments are hard to fathom.
In the first plan, commitments are introduced with a uniform statement in almost all cases to the effect “Australia will…..”
While all the commitments were described as ‘vague’ in the Stewart report, these words at least carried some weight.
In this plan neither this formulation nor anything similarly robust appears.
The statements of commitment are bland and vague in most instances.
“Our ambition is to develop meaningful options for reform of Commonwealth electoral law to enhance the existing electoral funding and disclosure scheme and build on other, related, reform. This will support increased transparency and increase public confidence in Australian democracy.”
“In implementing the reforms, PM&C commits to consulting across government, through the new National Data Advisory Council (see current Action Plan), with the Open Government Forum and with the public including businesses, civil society groups and research and non-profit sectors. The National Data Advisory Council will be a multi-disciplinary expert panel drawn from public sector and civic society organisations.”
Action Plans submitted by many other countries have much more specific commitments to actions that those countries will take to achieve identifiable purposes for example the UK commitment to a “mandatory phased introduction of the Public by Default“ standard delivered through a new generation of IT systems and accompanying policies -see OGP Explorer
- Contrary to what is claimed, none of the commitments are ‘ambitious’ and most are not ‘concrete’- the standard encouraged in OGP guidance.
For example commitments framed as ‘developing options‘ in
and ‘consulting’ in Improve the sharing, use and reuse of public sector data
do not commit to an outcome, or even to any reform.
Other commitments fall short including to
Consider and assess all options for strengthening the national anti-corruption framework. Strengthen the national anti-corruption framework
Explore ways to encourage the broader adoption of place-based approaches across the public service, Improve public service practices using place-centred approaches
Better provide for subnational participation in the Open Government Partnership process Enhance State and Territory Participation in the Open Government Partnership
Progress the publication of existing federal Government procurement data … then assess the use and value of that data for relevant purposes and to relevant user groups… and review existing procurement due diligence processes, report on the outcomes of the review, and consider opportunities to further support the Open Government Partnership values of transparency and accountability. Expand open contracting and due diligence in procurement
A major disappointment with implementation of commitments made in the first plan was the ‘business as usual’ approach to engagement by many agencies. Few followed the guidance issued by PM&C for ongoing, continuous engagement.
Most agencies have not got anywhere close to collaborating or partnering with civil society, community or interested parties.
There is nothing in the draft text or milestones to assuage fears it will be the same again this time around.
- Next steps
The timeframe for completion of the plan is tight.
However there is time and opportunity to amend the plan to recognise and acknowledge shortcomings in process, to reaffirm in strong terms the intention to support, collaborate and partner with civil society, and to commit to substantive, specific and ambitious open government reforms.
Submitted by the following members of the Australian Open Government Partnership Network:
Dr Nicholas Gruen
(Chair Government 2.0 Taskforce 2009)
(Queensland Information Commissioner 2008-2012)
Amanda Lawrence –Australian Policy Online
Associate Professor Johan Lindberg
Professor Moira Paterson
(Co-founder Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy)
Dr David Solomon AM
(Queensland Integrity Commissioner 2009-2014)
(Recipient, Australian Press Council Press Freedom Medal 2017)
(Vice President Australian Council for Human Rights Education)
Please address correspondence or follow up to Peter Timmins.
2 July 2018