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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Best public service should lead on open government as well

In the weeks since the Prime Minister set the Australian Public Service what he said was the "entirely reasonable and achievable" aspiration to be "the best public service anywhere in the world", an Advisory Group on Reform of Australian Government Administration has been appointed, chaired by PM&C Secretary Terry Moran to point the way. Verona Burgess in her Government Business column in the Australian Financial Review recently (no link available) criticised the composition of the group- all but four of the ten are insiders- and the decision to leave out some former insiders and others such as heavies from the Department of Finance and the former Finance boss Ian Watt now running Defence.

Another omission was any link with the Gov 2.0 Taskforce
whose terms of reference include to advise and assist the Government " to establish a pro-disclosure culture around non-sensitive public sector information; maximise the extent to which government utilises the views, knowledge and resources of the general community;.. to ensure that government is receptive to the possibilities created by new collaborative technologies and uses them to advance its ambition to continually improve the way it operates" etc, etc, all a good fit you might think with a world's best ambition.

The Advisory Group has released a discussion paper, again criticised by Burgess last week on several fronts including that it makes a weak case for some changes, and that in shooting for the stars, it may be putting the cart before the horse.

While the paper includes various references to the importance of improvements in transparency and accountability, citizen engagement and collaborative policy development (page 11) there is no reference at all to the Gov 2.0 project. The section (page 15) on "Trust and accountability" is self-congratulatory ("Australians have more trust in their government than citizens in most other comparable jurisdictions") but at least acknowledges:
"Maintaining trust and confidence arguably depends on a robust approach to transparency and openness. Transparency ensures that the public is well informed, that taxpayers can determine whether their tax dollars are being spent effectively and efficiently, and that as many decisions as possible impacting on the public and the public interest are subject to appropriate scrutiny. An open approach requires a culture of disclosure and cooperation which facilitates the transmission of ideas and allows critical review of performance and actions. To this end we note the contributions of reforms currently at various stages of development and implementation including:

• freedom of information reforms to promote a pro-disclosure culture across government

• the provision of greater protection for public service whistleblowers

• reviewing the privacy framework to ensure effective protections are in place for personal information."
However "Possible reform directions" doesn't take things in this area much further suggesting (page 19) simply "there may be room for further work" to strengthen accountability and trust,
"particularly in relation to performance and reporting on the achievement of outcomes. Increasing the public availability of government data and performance related information could enable citizens to better understand what the government does and how it affects them, as well as how the public service is performing."
Well yes, but it's all a bit skinny on the well-known and oft canvassed problems that need to be addressed if we are to move in the direction of greater openness and transparency beyond what might come from long overdue FOI reform and whisleblower protection.

For starters, the climate created by over 500 secrecy provisions in Federal laws (the ALRC is due to report on this by the end of the month); what is seen to be the political sensitivity associated with some government information, for example the options considered and the basis for many decisions, and the zealous attempt at the top to micro-manage as many information flows as possible, especially to the media; an overly risk-averse attitude generally within the public service and the encouragement this receives within a system that sees protection of the minister as the vital part of the job; the absence of incentives for, and limited recognition of, those prepared to challenge entrenched preferences for secrecy, yet plenty of interest in finding someone to blame when things go wrong; the leadership vacuum within the public service on the importance of open government principles and making democracy work better through improved dialogue and participation, while at the same time plenty of highly placed advocates who emphasise the need for confidentiality if the public service is to do its job properly; technical, legalistic interpretation and application of disclosure law, and at some points in the recent past,
questionable attempts at very senior levels to outmanoeuvre FOI applicants who seek to exercise their rights- see Andrew Podger's account.

Onward to world's best- or moving forward to world's best practice, as the PM might say, much to the delight of Don Watson.

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