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Friday, November 21, 2014

Finance says Australia yes, still 'considering' OGP membership, but participating and busy with preparatory work

Answers to questions from Senator John Faulkner in the delayed Senate Estimates hearing for the Department of Finance yesterday provide a glimmer of hope that Australia might yet proceed to fully join the Open Government Partnership. 

Minister Cormann gave the standard summary: 
"the situation is as it was when we last discussed this in May or June. The government has expressed an interest in joining the open government partnership. We are undertaking the necessary due diligence in order to come to a final decision. A final decision has not been made this point." 
However when recently appointed Secretary Jane Halton expanded on this it turns out a ministerial/prime ministerial decision was taken that Australia should participate in voting in the election of the OGP Steering Committee a few months back, and the department is working on a national action plan, with a rather mysterious reference "to 162 particular recommendations on 19 different topics."

Secretary Halton:
"So whilst we are participating as a participating country, we are doing the domestic work that would enable us, should the government choose to participate, to do the public consultation on the National Action Plan, and then ultimately to agree and sign on."
So all to the good, if as slow as a wet week given that we were invited to join over three years ago and the previous government lodged a notice of intention to join in May last year. Surprisingly that's enough to get us a vote.

And while public servants continue with what the Secretary described as "quite a lot of work" on the OGP, it's remarkable that no one I know outside the hallowed halls of power in Canberra has been asked for any input on any issue to do with membership, process, or the range of matters that might be considered relevant to a national action plan. 

Those 162 recommendations on 19 topics must represent a public service view of the open government space. Did 'abolish the OAIC' get a mention I wonder?

Those of us on the outside may share or differ on the list but as the Secretary knows, the clever people don't all reside in the Department of Finance. 

The Mandarin this week reported on an interview with Secretary Halton in which she talked about e-government, claimed we are no digital dawdler particularly in comparison to the British government, and revealed her interest in reaching out to the real world:
Along with impressing upon her team the need to “join the dots” between the department’s various projects to form a picture that reflects the government’s objectives, she’s been asking them to “talk to people”. “There’s no point us dreaming up an idea if it doesn’t work in the real world; it won’t be used,” she said. “So, one of the things I’ve been talking to my people a lot about is ‘consult, consult, consult’. Ultimately, government will make a decision, but I need to know and I want my people to know what the CFO down in Health thinks about a framework, or what the secretary of the Defence Department thinks about how this will work for him. We need to understand and get people’s input. I mean, there’s a lot of clever people in the public service. They don’t all reside here, so why wouldn’t we get their ideas?”
There are lots outside the public service as well, looking to advance the partnership in Open Government Partnership.

The relevant extract from the transcript follows:

Senator FAULKNER: I thank the committee, the minister and the secretary for enabling me to ask these questions. I have a commitment in Sydney later this afternoon that simply means I just cannot ask these questions at perhaps a more appropriate time in the batting order. I appreciate that very much. I have also flagged with both the minister and the secretary what the nature of this questioning is, which relates to the open government partnership. Perhaps the easiest way of me dealing with this is if I could just asked the secretary, the relevant officials or minister for a status report in relation to Australia's involvement in the OGP.

Senator Cormann: I might just kick off with some general comments and then ask the secretary and others to add to that. Fundamentally, the situation is as it was when we last discussed this in May or June. The government has expressed an interest in joining the open government partnership. We are undertaking the necessary due diligence in order to come to a final decision. A final decision has not been made this point. We have expressed an interest in joining and we are undertaking the relevant due diligence. We have not made a final decision, but in the meantime we are participating in various fora with observer status and I believe that we have participated in various votes that have taken place using that status. I might ask the secretary to expand on it from there.

Ms Halton : Thank you for the question. As the minister says, there is a process we have to go through, which includes the government actually taking a final decision to participate. But what I can tell you is that the actions that would be necessary to enable that decision to be ultimately taken are underway. The way this particular partnerships works, you can be not a full member but an associated member while you are going through the process. So there are now what are called participating countries, and there are 65 participating countries, of which we are one. As the minister has indicated, that means we actually have the right to vote in terms of things like the creation of the bureau, the executive to this committee. Indeed, we did vote for executive members recently—maybe six to eight weeks ago.

To actually finalise our membership we essentially have to do three things. The first is to endorse the declaration. The second is to develop a public consulted national action plan. The third thing is to agree to independent reporting of progress. One and three are binary—yes or no—but it is number two that actually requires some work, as well as seeing how the thing is working, and making sure one is comfortable that the governance is open and transparent, as we would wish. I can tell you that with the national action plan, which would need to be publicly consulted on, we have started doing work on that inside the department. So whilst we are participating as a participating country, we are doing the domestic work that would enable us, should the government choose to participate, to do the public consultation on the National Action Plan, and then ultimately to agree and sign on.

There is quite a lot of work. There are 162 particular recommendations on 19 different topics, I am advised—I concede that I have not gone through all of them line by line. We believe that we are about 75 per cent compliant with all of those things. You know, because I know of your particular and personal interest in openness. You know we have things like and we have about four thousand data sets. Also, we have the AusTender process. So there is a whole series of things we are doing that line up. I think we are going through the steps that we need to take, but we are doing it in an orderly fashion with a view, when we have done all that, of enabling the government to make a decision.

Senator FAULKNER: Thank you for that status report. Is Finance still the lead agency in relation to this matter?

Ms Halton : Yes.

Senator FAULKNER: Are you engaging with other departments or agencies, and is there any formal process for that to occur?

Senator Cormann: The Prime Minister has given responsibility for this part of government decision making to me—obviously, as appropriate, and as would have been the case, I am sure, under previous governments. I consult with the Prime Minister and also with the Attorney-General. Ms Halton might wish to expand on that as far as departmental interaction is concerned.

Ms Halton : In addition to those obvious corollaries to the people the minister has mentioned, we obviously have a very close relationship with the Department of Communications. So we are working on both the contracting/tendering e-work with agencies across the government. I do not have the specific list of which recommendation we talked to which department about, but I can assure you that there is a process my people are going through that does absolutely include talking to others.

Senator FAULKNER: But it is not formalised to the extent of an IDC?

Ms Halton : No.

Senator FAULKNER: Can you outline to the committee what sort of resources, including staffing resources, are involved from a Department of Finance perspective?

Ms Halton : I would describe this as being very congruent with, lined up with, the work of one of the areas of the department. Regrettably the senior officer in that area, Mr Sheridan, is unavailable today. You will understand that, because this was shuffled around, people then had obligations that were unable to be moved.

Senator FAULKNER: Tell me about it!

Ms Halton : Indeed, hence we are doing these questions now. It is part of his work and it is so congruent with the work we are doing on purchasing and open government et cetera. Because it comes in peaks and troughs I would have to think about how I would quantify it, but it is explicitly part of his brief and his people's brief.

Senator FAULKNER: Can you take that on notice for us?

Ms Halton : Sure.

Senator FAULKNER: Perhaps you might give more consideration to that and perhaps the department could work up a response, obviously with Mr Sheridan's input on that.

Ms Halton : Of course.

Senator FAULKNER: At what level is the due diligence process the minister referred to being undertaken? Obviously that is critical in this.

Ms Halton : The officer who is specifically charged with brining this together is at the division head level. Obviously the deputy secretary is particularly interested. As you can probably tell, I have taken a particular interest in this.

Senator Cormann: Anything you take a particular interest in, both of us take a particular interest in!

Ms Halton : Indeed we do!

Senator FAULKNER: I do not know why that would be!

Ms Halton : Long experience!

Senator Cormann: Perhaps one reason would be that we expect from time to time we will get questions about it at these sorts of get togethers. We run with these things and keep them at the top of our minds, which is why I suspect you are asking the questions.

Senator FAULKNER: I hope they are clear and straightforward questions about internal processes within the department you administer.

Senator Cormann: It is perfect.

Ms Halton : It is a deliverable for a division head, but I am very much involved in what is going on there.

Senator FAULKNER: Nevertheless, as you indicated in earlier statements, a decision has been made for Australia to participate in various OGP forums, including voting?

Ms Halton : Correct. That was a conscious decision to decide to participate, including by voting.

Senator FAULKNER: At what level was that decision made?

Ms Halton : The minister, I think, decided we should participate—

Senator Cormann: After consultation with the Prime Minister.

Senator FAULKNER: So that is a ministerial decision?

Ms Halton : Yes.

Senator FAULKNER: Can you say when that decision was taken? If not, could you take it on notice.

Senator Cormann: I can take that on notice.

Ms Halton : Sure.

Senator Cormann: I cannot specifically recollect, but I will check that out.

Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that. So, as you mentioned, the development of the National Action Plan is in the three areas of engagement. The area that requires the greatest level of tasking for the Department of Finance obviously is the development of a National Action Plan. I think you would acknowledge that that is the case.

Ms Halton : Yes.

Senator FAULKNER: And you said that that work was underway.

Ms Halton : Correct.

Senator FAULKNER: I would be interested to understand that. On what basis did work commence on the development of the National Action Plan?

Ms Halton : I think on the basis that, as we have indicated, we are taking these orderly steps. The government had decided we would participate by voting. We are moving forward in the process. There has been no decision to stop that moving forward, if I could turn it around the other way. Because, moving forward in the process, we are required to do this, we are doing this. The minister is aware we are doing it. When it is done it will go to the minister and to the government for their consideration.

Senator FAULKNER: There have obviously been some higher levels of the OGP where Australia has not been represented. I think you would acknowledge that. President Yudhoyono, I think, invited the Prime Minister to attend a high-level meeting in New York when I think the Prime Minister was in New York.

Ms Halton : I think it was just before he arrived. We actually did look at it at that time. I could be corrected on that. My memory is that it did not quite work, which is why I think we had the representation we did, in terms of who was there.

Senator FAULKNER: Have there been any other high-level meetings where Australia has received an invitation to attend, that you are aware of?

Ms Halton : Not that I am aware of.

Senator FAULKNER: That was the last one?

Ms Halton : That is my understanding.

Senator FAULKNER: How is the international engagement, which obviously is critical, in relation to the OGP being coordinated? I assume there is an engagement with DFAT.

Ms Halton : Correct.

Senator FAULKNER: Can you very briefly explain how this works?

Ms Halton : As you would understand, our department does not have an overseas footprint—not many do—and, in this particular instance, we have been tasking people in the mission quite specifically when necessary. Obviously the officers can and do liaise directly with the relevant individuals offshore. But, when we need someone to go to a meeting for us or we need particular representations to be made or indeed if we need information sought that is not immediately practicable for us to do via email, telephone or what have you, we have been tasking DFAT from the mission.

Senator FAULKNER: So you are just tasking them effectively?

Ms Halton : Yes, we are using them as our extension. You understand how those processes work.

Senator FAULKNER: Not always, but I think I generally get the message. Chair, I appreciate the courtesy of the committee to enable me to do this now, and I will perhaps make this my last question and put other questions on notice. At the last estimates round this issue was canvassed in some detail and—

Ms Halton : Which I of course was not here for. So I will be relying on the minister's memory.

Senator FAULKNER: I think you were here but with another department.

Ms Halton : Indeed, but I was not here in this committee. That was merely my point.

Senator FAULKNER: You were not at the table in this committee or other committees where other departments had a role when that issue was raised. In that round we heard of formal communications from senior ministers in both the UK and of course also in the US administration. Have there been in the last couple of months any other government—

Ms Halton : Representations?

Senator FAULKNER: Other government to Australian government representations that you are aware of and you are able to inform the committee about?

Ms Halton : None that I am aware of. I am happy to check.

Senator FAULKNER: Would you mind taking that on notice?

Ms Halton : Sure.

Senator FAULKNER: And that might mean in relation to Finance, so you might need to check that with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Ms Halton : I cannot guarantee that we can check every, single source, but we are very happy to make inquiries.

Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that. But, given the respective responsibilities of other agencies, if your officials could also undertake to check with DFAT and respond on notice, I would appreciate that.

Ms Halton : We would be very happy to do that.

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