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Monday, April 07, 2008

Some shortcomings in the 2020 Summit background paper on Governance

The background paper and questions on Governance issued to 'trigger conversation both before and during the 2020 Summit' may just do that, but they won't help shape discussion at the Summit itself. In fact by making some disputed claims, and not providing background information on some important elements of the topic, they could make dialogue and consensus on a whole range of complex issues even more difficult.

The set of 13 PowerPoints (PDF 260KB) includes one (9) on Freedom of Information that unfortunately does not provide basic information about debate on this topic. It consists of a claim that "granting rates" are 95% for personal information and 89% for other information, with the only qualification on this rosy situation in the form of three sentences from two court judgments about accountability and secrecy, and an unsourced claim that 70% of Queensland applicants were satisfied with the FOI process.

Nothing here about the stack of reports that have identified the problems in this area as an enduring culture of secrecy; lack of leadership within government; inadequacies in the law; technical legalistic responses; long delays; high cost and slow review mechanisms.

I'd be struggling to put all this on a single slide, but what has been provided is a poor attempt at providing basic information that someone will need to spend a moment or two at the Summit to correct.

Then, in what will be a surprise to most government watchers, there is a table (slide 8) that lists Australia as 12th when ranked against other countries in terms of "transparency of government policy making". You have to ask yourself exactly what is being measured here when countries not renowned for democratic practices such as Singapore, are rated one, Hong Kong five and Malaysia 16. My guess from the footnote is that it is a score of something to do with monetary policy based on a survey of business leaders, but to put this forward as a positive general indicator of the trust in Australian public institutions is a bit of a stretch.

With all of the controversy about the role of the public service, the background slide (10) on this topic is devoted solely to how difficult it may be to recruit sufficient public servants in future.

Questions are raised in the document about accountability of the Parliament and the role of the judiciary, but there is nothing in the background paper on these topics.

Quite a few preliminary summits were held around the country over the week end. Andrew Leigh of ANU (also down for the big event) attended the Canberra Summit and says that one of the real difficulties is that there is no time at this sort of event to respond to sceptics, so inevitably ideas that survive are the broad general ones that no one could disagree with. ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope said that at times it felt like policy speed dating.

A vital element for any process of this kind is good solid background information in advance, and a framework for discussion. The Governance group will be operating at a disadvantage on 19-20 April in this respect.

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