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Thursday, April 23, 2015

They'll be talking about Australia at two international conferences this week

But it's unlikely to extend to praise or admiration for leadership and performance in the open, transparent and accountable government space.

On the contrary the lead question when Australia is mentioned at the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee Meeting in Mexico will be "what's going on down there?" And at the Ninth International Conference of Information Commissioners in Chile, "where are they?"

Australia's dithering about membership of the OGP won't escape attention at the meeting in Mexico.

And those attending the information commissioners gathering in Chile are certain to be puzzled at the absence of anyone from the Office of Australian Information Commissioner, let alone the explanation: that the government has been unsuccessful in achieving its plan announced last year to abolish the office with the bill stuck in the Senate without majority support since October, and that the freedom of information functions of the office have been unfunded since 1 January.

Open Government Partnership
At the OGP Steering Committee Meeting in Mexico, a ministerial level meeting from 21-23 April, the agenda item Criteria & Standards includes discussion of a proposal clarifying OGP rules on how to deal with delays in developing new Action Plans. The proposal looks into what should be done where countries do not meet OGP process requirements.  

A related agenda item is an update on several countries, including those that received letters at the end of last year for being late with their Action Plans.

Australia is one of these countries.

The OGP Support Unit wrote to the Department of Finance in November last year pointing out that Australia had acted contrary to the OGP process in failing to meet deadlines for lodgement of a national action plan.

In March Finance Minister Cormann told a Senate committee the government was 'positively inclined' to join the OGP but the minister stuck to the still under consideration line.

For those like Prime Minister Abbott who aspire to 'good government' OGP membership and participation should be a walk up. After all
"The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a multi- stakeholder initiative focused on improving government transparency, accountability and responsiveness to citizens. OGP brings together government and civil society champions of reform who recognize that governments are much more likely to be effective and credible if they open their doors to public input and oversight."
Sixty four countries have joined the OGP or are in the process of doing so. Australia was invited to join in September 2011. OGP countries represent one third of the world’s population and have made more than 2,000 open government reform commitments.

Documents (pdf) released under Freedom of Information reveal Prime Minister Abbott in October last year wanted to see the detail of what Australia might commit to in a national action plan before deciding whether Australia should join the OGP.

In a letter to Finance Minister Cormann, Prime Minister Abbott instructed that no announcement of Australia's position on the OGP should be made "until a draft national action plan is submitted for my consideration. The action plan must give effect to practical measures that align with the Government's overall policy objectives in this area and that take into account the work of the (Redacted: s 34(3) Cabinet) and the timeframes for Government decisions on that work."

A brief to Minister Cormann advised that Finance had commenced work on a draft plan scheduled for completion by the end of November, Finance in March refused access to the draft plan citing those great old time APS support players "Frank and Candid" who are getting a heavy workout in agencies these days.

The redacted words in the PM's letter and the briefing note might refer to work that led to the announcement by the Prime Minister and Minister for Communications Turnbull in January of the intention to establish the Digital Transformation Office. Minister Turnbull in launching the office two weeks ago reaffirmed "one of the commitments of our government is greater transparency and accountability" and in answer to a question said Australia intended to reach out globally for ideas and to assist others. He later indicated Australia would join the D5. 

The D5 is a network-United Kingdom, South Korea, Estonia, Israel and New Zealand- that will "meet annually to work together and showcase the best digital government activity around the world."All D5 countries are members of the OGP. (Update: it's no accident. Thanks to the NZ reader who points out the D5 Charter (pdf) at 3.5) requires members to belong to the OGP.)

In fact the movers and shakers in this field are all members of the OGP including all nine countries ranked above Australia (10th) in the World Wide Web Foundation Open Government Index 2015-UK, US, Sweden, France, New Zealand, Netherlands, Canada, Norway and Denmark.

Membership and participation in the OGP and a genuine partnership in developing a national action plan that results in commitment to improved transparency, more open government and increased citizen participation should be high on the government's 'good government' list.

Information Commissioners.
But that list shouldn't include abolishing the Office of Australian Information Commissioner, a move out of step with best practice internationally and among the Australian states and territories. 

The Federal government's unprecedented plan will be a talking point in Chile on 22-23 April where one of the topics for discussion is “Access to Information Enforcement Bodies: Institutional Design, Jurisprudence and International Exchanges.”

If anyone's there from the Information and Privacy Commission NSW, the Office of the Information Commissioner QLD, the Freedom of Information Commission Victoria, the Office of the Information Commissioner WA, or the Office of the Information Commissioner NT, maybe they can give Federal Attorney General Brandis a short summary of best practice on return. 

It won't include removing the independent office that oversights FOI, undertakes non litigious review of agency decisions and champions transparent, accountable, open government.

Ditching the bill, and adequately funding the office while engaging minds inside and outside government on how to deliver the goods in an efficient and effective manner should be the next step in this ill fated saga.

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