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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Open, transparent government: Australia struggling to join the dots

The Australian government seems to have kept its distance from the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Mexico City last week while close to 3000 by some calculations gathered there to discuss, explore, share and learn about enhancing open, transparent government and citizen participation.

In a week when Environment Minister Greg Hunt was speaking in Beijing "attempting to re-assert the nation's eco-credentials on the world stage after the removal of Tony Abbott as prime minister" the government did little to assure domestic and international audiences that the Abbott era 'war on transparency' was a thing of the past.

There was no response, publicly at least, to a request four months ago that the government clarify its intentions regarding OGP membership before the summit. And there was no Australian government representation there as far as I can ascertain although who knows, someone in the embassy may have had nothing more pressing to do. (Addendum: I hear the Ambassador was down to attend something during the three days.)

In Mexico City, heads of state and government, ministers, senior officials, parliamentarians, local governments, international organisations, the private sector and civil society representatives gathered to examine among other topics how the OGP and the principles that underpin the initiative could be applied to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, contribute to anti-corruption plans, harness new technologies to make government more open, effective and accountable, increase transparency in a wide range of areas from health to forestry and other extractive industries, encourage and protect civil society engagement, and expand learning and experience from the partnership to sub-national levels of government.

 Mexican President President Enrique Pena Nieto opened the conference. 

Those present included Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis Rivera, South African Deputy President Ramaphosa, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, Guyana Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, Sri Lankan Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Harsha De Silva, UK Minister of State for Trade and Investment, previously Minister for the Cabinet Office Lord Francis Maude, and Latvian Foreign Ministry’s Parliamentary State Secretary for EU Affairs Zanda Kalnina-Lukasevica.  

US Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski was there in a delegation led by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power. As were government representatives from Canada and New Zealand as well as former NZ prime minister, now head of the UNDP Helen Clark. 

Georgia won the OGP Government Champions Award.

Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Cote D'Ivoire announced their intention to join.

The Australian government? 

Nowhere to be seen, Silvana Fumega the only participant from this neck of the woods that I'm aware of. (Addendum: anybody see the Australian Ambassador?)
Close to 70 countries have joined or announced an intention to do so. Foundation members such as the US are now at the stage of a Third National Action Plan. The Liberal/ National government has been considering and reconsidering for over two years the May 2013 notice of Australia's intention to join. There is nothing in the public domain to show for this.
The partnership is not without its challenges and problems. 

But as Simon Burall director of public participation think tank and charity Involve and a member of the UK Open Government Network’s steering group observes, the OGP
is like no other international process I’ve been involved in – and I’ve been involved in more than my fair share.There are precious few international or national organisations that place government and civil society firmly on a level, with equal power. There are even fewer where governments make joint commitments with civil society to push themselves to be more open, more participative and more accountable. To top it all, these commitments are independently reviewed rather than peer reviewed in the style of mutual back-slapping. But what really draws me to the OGP is that it focuses on creating a space where reformers inside government and civil society can work together, learn from each other, push and inspire each other, and make deeper, more challenging reforms.
Meanwhile on the home front 
  • the Public Data Branch in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet announced its arrival on the scene, promising "to prioritise better sharing and publishing of government data by putting data policy at the very heart of the public sector." 
  • Stephen Bartos in the Canberra Times listed reasons why Australia lags in the international open data stakes including the strong attachment to the notion that government "owns" its data and controls access to it, and cultural barriers in the middle ranks where data is held close and openness feared.
  • The silos stand. PM&C is encouraging release of government data with decisions left to the discretion of the agencies that hold the data; the Freedom of Information Act that includes a limited mandatory pro-active disclosure requirement is unloved by those in important senior roles in government as Professor Richard Mulgan points out also in the Canberra Times, and in need of  review and modernisation in any event; and the Attorney General remains committed to abolishing the Office of Australian Information Commissioner that would among other adverse effects remove the independent advocate and watchdog for open, transparent and accountable government, having already defunded the office's government wide information policy function.
The Prime Minister is on the record as saying he wants to see more open, consultative government and stated an intention to reach out to the international community in this space. I think he meant it. Can someone help him join the dots?

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