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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Information access a whole - of - government change management challenge

Those thinking about, interested, or involved in change associated with access to government information - now a broad church across the country - will find much of value in the report "Information Policy and E-Governance in the Australian Government"( pdf 185kb) by Dr Ian Reinecke for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The report was completed in March, although the published version includes an update reference in July and has only recently been released. The Government 2.0 Taskforce clearly had its genesis here although neither
Minister Ludwig nor Minister Tanner mentioned Reinecke's report in announcing its establishment in June, and nothing has been said publicly about what might be happening behind the scenes on its key message- the need to get cracking now. Reinecke himself was appointed to the Taskforce- more about him and the consultancy (I doubt this was $70000 for a week's work) here

While the sole focus of the report is the Federal Government, the problems, challenges and suggested responses are likely to be closely replicated in other jurisdictions where change is underway or on the way.

The report provides a look at international developments and the current state of play within the Government on information policy and technology. Reinecke illustrates that Australia badly lags comparable countries in recognising the opportunities to improve government-public dialogue through access to and sharing information. The Federal Government picture he paints isn't a pretty one: diverse information practices across government; disaggregated governance of information management policy; problems arising from split responsibilities for parts of the equation; absence of a co-ordinating lead agency and real clout for key agencies to make things happen; attitudes among public servants on disclosure and the use and reuse of information by the public that are mostly defensive or disinterested; and other limitations and constraints such as copyright and confusion about licensing options.

However Reinecke was heartened to find some innovators within government pushing the envelope by using new information tools and techniques, and an agency such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics embracing creative commons licensing. He and others he talked to see Freedom of Information reform particularly the establishment of the Office of Information Commissioner as an overdue measure. And the big opportunity to put information governance in its rightful place - central to good government.

Reinecke sets out a commendable scheme of what needs to be done, starting immediately to build momentum and helpfully, suggests priorities for the Information Commissioner, once established. He acknowledges that better governance in the information field is a whole -of -government change management exercise that will take time, as many within government remain unaware or unconvinced of the need for change or the benefits. He points out that the Commissioner will need strong support from public service colleagues and to bring in outside expertise, knowledge and experience.

A couple of important findings and observations from the report:

"Agencies’ interest in government information tends to cease at the point of creation; they do not see part of their role as putting that information to work outside government, although there is a sense that third parties may be better placed than they to do so. There is a real question about agency preparedness to make public sector information more widely available; in classifying information within government, there is a tendency to over-classify as a defensive measure. The argument for open access is not clearly understood. Making agency performance data publicly available may meet resistance from some Commonwealth agencies, even as they are seeking to persuade state jurisdictions to adopt and disclose performance metrics; there may also be caution about ‘unintended consequences’ e.g. parents withdrawing children from under-performing schools. Information management is seen by all agencies interviewed as distinct from managing the technology and some noted that there is a tendency of IT staff to resist more open communications instead of regarding ICT as an enabler of more open engagement between government and citizens.[5.6]

The general principle that recognises that the purpose for which an agency creates information is relevant to determining the terms on which it is released, is not clearly articulated across government.By the nature of what they do, the service delivery agencies bring to the issue of open access a higher level of recognition that close engagement with their customer base is essential and that online technologies present opportunities for innovation in that regard.
They also recognise that the disproportionately higher volume of FOI requests they receive and the higher costs they incur responding to queries could be ameliorated by more proactive release of information. It is clear however that some agencies show little evidence of re-thinking their position on ensuring more open access to information and closer interactive engagement with individuals and communities online.[5.7]

There is a specific need to begin developing an Australian Government information policy that is appropriate to the digital world and which should make it easier to search for, discover and use government information. This will enable better access to public sector information in a form and on terms which are of greatest value to those who seek it.(6.1)

The major obstacle to introducing e-consultation in government is not technical; it is a cultural attachment by the public service and politicians to constrain the systematic sharing of information with citizens. To overcome that cultural reluctance, public service managers need a reason to change their behaviour and a process to do so.(7.7)

The intuitively appealing principle of governments being as open as possible to the citizens who elect them needs to be informed by a realistic assessment of the measures, functions and structures required to deliver that outcome. International experience, although not a perfect template for who does what in government to better manage information in Australia, is instructive.(8.1)

All part of the challenge for the Taskforce and the Information Commissioner, waiting out there somewhere.

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