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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Getting the 'we're different" message" out there.

Kevin Rudd, Nathan Rees, Anna Bligh, David Bartlett, Jon Stanhope, Colin Barnett, even John Brumby- Australian government leaders all- came to office with, or thereafter embraced plans over the last 18 months or so, to do something to promote greater openness and transparency, in particular to change the way Freedom of Information laws work in practice.

Some have made a little progress- Bligh has a mostly reasonable "new era" bill on the table. Most are still at the thinking and good intentions stage.

None issued instructions about how things were to be done differently on Day One, Day 30 or Day 100. In the Federal Government's case nothing to this effect has been issued after 400 days in office.While waiting for discussion papers to be prepared, consultations to occur, review reports to be finalised, or bills to be drafted and enacted, in practice things have continued much as before.

Well there are other ways to indicate new and different times. President Obama managed a reference in the Inauguration address to doing business "in the light of day" as necessary to restore trust in government.( It wasn't quite the same, but Kevin Rudd said something similar in talking to Kerry O'Brien three days after being elected 14 months ago.)

But within hours of taking office President Obama, with plenty on his plate, issued not one but two Presidential memorandum on the subject of openness and transparency. One directed agencies to adopt a presumption in favour of disclosure when dealing with Freedom of Information applications,to take steps to publish information and for new FOI guidelines to be issued within 120 days. The other set the same deadline for an Open Government Directive, to be issued by the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, that instructs executive departments and agencies and independent government agencies to take specific actions to implement principles befitting transparent, participatory and collaborative government.

The text of both is here.

The specific instruction about FOI reads:

" The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public. All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA. The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely."

C'mon our team, still not too late to take this lead on how to be different.

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