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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Queensland, bring on the information revolution, hold the rhetoric

Queensland is the latest to hop on the open data bus with Premier Campbell Newman announcing the appointment of a new Assistant Minister to the Premier on e-government, to drive the government's  ‘open data revolution’, "all part of meeting the LNP’s commitment to restoring accountability in Government.” In addition to the appointment of Mr Stevens as Assistant Minister, an Open Data Reform Group will be formed that will include the Director-Generals of all Queensland Government Departments to lead the culture change across government".

In this appearance before the Parliamentary Estimates Committee the same day transcript - FAC Proof the Premier upped the revolution to rhetoric (emphasis added):
"What we propose to do is really throw out everything that the government has onto a new website to ensure that Queenslanders can scrutinise this government, can look into every nook and cranny of what is going on, to ensure that they are totally informed. We are modelling this on some of the groundbreaking things that are going on overseas. I particularly draw the committee’s attention to the New York City open government initiative, where there is a wealth of information that has now been made available to the citizens of that city.
Why are we doing this? I have talked about the fact that we need to be open with Queenslanders, but there is a whole range of benefits that we believe will apply. Once upon a time—over 100 years ago—governments often granted land as a way of stimulating the economic development of this state. Today in the information age by releasing information we believe that will actually stimulate the economy and stimulate improvements in productivity.
So what is this all about, to get into the nitty-gritty? Well, imagine in a few months time when this has really started to get a head of steam. We propose that you will be able to find out where the speed cameras are located. You will be able to find out the hospital emergency statistics and general statistics on the performance of our hospitals. You will know the electricity consumption of the various state schools and government departments. You will have access to the traffic counts done by the Department of Transport and Main Roads. There will be a wealth of information out there.
How does that help the community? If you are a transport logistics company, having the traffic counts and the most recent information available free of charge on the government website will mean that you will be able to re-plan the way your business operates ensuring that your trucks avoid roads during congested periods and the like. This is going to be a very exciting thing.
Perhaps before I close I can talk about what has happened overseas. We are seeing very significant savings in the United States. For example, in Texas they reported $8.7 million in savings directly attributable to their transparency website in just the first year of operation. I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald and this is what we will be doing with financial information—
Opening the government books to an army of online citizen investigators has uncovered waste and duplication and made junkets or pork-barrelling spending near impossible. Corruption and rorting cannot occur when the records are freely available. Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.

I am really delighted that Ray Stevens has taken up this challenge, and I know that this is going to be a quiet revolution in the state of Queensland. "
Clayton Utz suggests a few things that need to be sorted before this becomes reality.

No mention in the Premier's remarks of the Information Commissioner's role in any of this.The position previously filled by the highly regarded Julie Kinross who had plenty of experience plugging away at the culture change, is apparently still vacant.

I'm sure the Premier isn't into fads or as some are suggesting the "faux transparency" of open data, and can connect the dots between initiatives to ensure "Queenslanders can scrutinise this government, can look into every nook and cranny of what is going on, to ensure that they are totally informed" and the Right to Information Act. As Kinross noted in her annual report this year just before finishing up, when it comes to implementation:
The culture of the public sector remains a key challenge. A compliance approach where open government performance measures are included in chief executive officer and senior executive staff contracts is necessary if the culture is to be changed over time.
The RTI act itself includes some provisions that unduly constrain Queenslanders looking into every nook and cranny to ensure that they are totally informed- absolute exemptions for incoming government briefs, and for information concerning incentives granted to business for investment in the state (for seven years thereafter), and exclusion from the RTI act entirely for the parliamentary departments which pay entitlements to parliamentarians, to mention just three.

In opposition at least Mr Newman's Attorney General was hot to trot to ensure other nooks and crannies were open to scrutiny, introducing legislation that went nowhere at that time:
The Right to information (Government-Related Entities) Amendment Bill 2011 will restore transparency and accountability by extending the meaning of a public authority to include any corporation supported directly or indirectly by government funds or other assistance or over which the state, a minister or a department is in a position to exercise control.
As Brisbane lord mayor Mr Newman also had some form on open government. In that role in 2010 he was successful in persuading the Government to legislate to give Brisbane City Council's Establishment and Coordination Committee the same status for RTI purposes as the state cabinet. The legislation also gave all local government authorities in Queensland an exemption from the RTI act for "information brought into existence in the course of a local government’s budgetary processes" for 10 years, a wonderfully wide and generous provision.
Up the revolution!

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