Friday, March 23, 2012

Australia to sit out Open Government Partnership

We don't say no to Washington all that often but while there last week, I was told by someone following the initiative closely that Australia has decided not to join the Open Government Partnership, launched by President Obama in New York in September last year. Just what's the problem is unknown but I recall Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan telling a Senate committee last year that  we had some questions concerning the initiative. Whatever, concerns haven't been enough to hold back the eight founding governments and 38 others participating who will meet in Brazil next month.

 I understand the UK will co-chair the initiative with the US for the ensuing 12 months. 

Who knows what our new Foreign Minister Bob Carr thinks about it all. If he made a speech during his 10 years as premier of NSW extolling the virtues of FOI, I missed it. In his time in that office even ministerial media releases didn't get posted on the web, media management and spin came ahead of other considerations, and the open government cause generally suffered from the lack of high level leadership and support. DFAT already has a tendency towards excessive secrecy so it's a nice fit on that score.

A pity as Australia has something of a positive record worth sharing in international company. As to which parts of the OGP Declaration trouble us, your guess is as good as mine:

As members of the Open Government Partnership, committed to the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention against Corruption, and other applicable international instruments related to human rights and good governance:

We acknowledge that people all around the world are demanding more openness in government. They are calling for greater civic participation in public affairs, and seeking ways to make their governments more transparent, responsive, accountable, and effective. 

We recognize that countries are at different stages in their efforts to promote openness in government, and that each of us pursues an approach consistent with our national priorities and circumstances and the aspirations of our citizens.

We accept responsibility for seizing this moment to strengthen our commitments to promote transparency, fight corruption, empower citizens, and harness the power of new technologies to make government more effective and accountable. 

We uphold the value of openness in our engagement with citizens to improve services, manage public resources, promote innovation, and create safer communities. We embrace principles of transparency and open government with a view toward achieving greater prosperity, well-being, and human dignity in our own countries and in an increasingly interconnected world. 

Together, we declare our commitment to:

Increase the availability of information about governmental activities.
Governments collect and hold information on behalf of people, and citizens have a right to seek information about governmental activities. We commit to promoting increased access to information and disclosure about governmental activities at every level of government. We commit to increasing our efforts to systematically collect and publish data on government spending and performance for essential public services and activities. We commit to pro-actively provide high-value information, including raw data, in a timely manner, in formats that the public can easily locate, understand and use, and in formats that facilitate reuse. We commit to providing access to effective remedies when information or the corresponding records are improperly withheld, including through effective oversight of the recourse process. We recognize the importance of open standards to promote civil society access to public data, as well as to facilitate the interoperability of government information systems. We commit to seeking feedback from the public to identify the information of greatest value to them, and pledge to take such feedback into account to the maximum extent possible. 

Support civic participation.

We value public participation of all people, equally and without discrimination, in decision making and policy formulation. Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight. We commit to making policy formulation and decision making more transparent, creating and using channels to solicit public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities. We commit to protecting the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion. We commit to creating mechanisms to enable greater collaboration between governments and civil society organizations and businesses.

Implement the highest standards of professional integrity throughout our administrations.
Accountable government requires high ethical standards and codes of conduct for public officials. We commit to having robust anti-corruption policies, mechanisms and practices, ensuring transparency in the management of public finances and government purchasing, and strengthening the rule of law. We commit to maintaining or establishing a legal framework to make public information on the income and assets of national, high ranking public officials. We commit to enacting and implementing rules that protect whistleblowers. We commit to making information regarding the activities and effectiveness of our anticorruption prevention and enforcement bodies, as well as the procedures for recourse to such bodies, available to the public, respecting the confidentiality of specific law enforcement information. We commit to increasing deterrents against bribery and other forms of corruption in the public and private sectors, as well as to sharing information and expertise. 

Increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability.
New technologies offer opportunities for information sharing, public participation, and collaboration. We intend to harness these technologies to make more information public in ways that enable people to both understand what their governments do and to influence decisions. We commit to developing accessible and secure online spaces as platforms for delivering services, engaging the public, and sharing information and ideas. We recognize that equitable and affordable access to technology is a challenge, and commit to seeking increased online and mobile connectivity, while also identifying and promoting the use of alternative mechanisms for civic engagement. We commit to engaging civil society and the business community to identify effective practices and innovative approaches for leveraging new technologies to empower people and promote transparency in government. We also recognize that increasing access to technology entails supporting the ability of governments and citizens to use it. We commit to supporting and developing the use of technological innovations by government employees and citizens alike. We also understand that technology is a complement, not a substitute, for clear, useable, and useful information. 

We acknowledge that open government is a process that requires ongoing and sustained commitment. We commit to reporting publicly on actions undertaken to realize these principles, to consulting with the public on their implementation, and to updating our commitments in light of new challenges and opportunities. 

We pledge to lead by example and contribute to advancing open government in other countries by sharing best practices and expertise and by undertaking the commitments expressed in this declaration on a non-binding, voluntary basis. Our goal is to foster innovation and spur progress, and not to define standards to be used as a precondition for cooperation or assistance or to rank countries. We stress the importance to the promotion of openness of a comprehensive approach and the availability of technical assistance to support capacity- and institution-building.

We commit to espouse these principles in our international engagement, and work to foster a global culture of open government that empowers and delivers for citizens, and advances the ideals of open and participatory 21st century government.


  1. I prefer the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" 1789 (see weblink) which is shorter and more uncompromising about liberty and the information (e.g. about government expenditure) that governments must make available to their taxpaying citizens.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Do you know which Senate Committee that was?

    I'm also concerned and disturbed at this news.

  3. Hi Peter, I did find this reference in the Senate Orders for AGs

    11/27653 FCS - Open Government Partnership proposal


    And this exchange in the FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION LEGISLATION COMMITTEE Hansard for Monday 17 October 2011 on pp. 182-3:

    Senator RHIANNON: We have just seen the launch, by President Obama, of the Open Government Partnership in New York, at which Australia was a notable absentee. I was surprised about this, considering the Open Government Partnership is quite an impressive multilateral initiative that aims to secure some commitments from governments to promote transparency and all of the fine aspects of FOI, including all the spin-offs that go with it in fighting corruption and particularly harnessing new technologies to strengthen governance. Given your comments, I am interested in why Australia passed up the opportunity to be part of this partnership with 46 other countries. Will we be participating in 2012? Do you have any recommendations?

    Prof. McMillan: A criterion for membership of the open government partnership is that the decision is made at the highest levels of executive government. So, clearly, it is not for me to make any decision on that, or really to express an opinion. I did attend an initial meeting in Washington in July prior to the launch of the open government partnership in September. I have made a submission to government analysing all of the issues.
    Government will make a decision on whether to join but I must say that we did not have a lot of advance notice of this issue. The meeting in July was really the first that my office and many others knew about it. Certainly, I came back with a lot of questions in my mind about the way the partnership would be conducted.

    There had been a steering committee forming it but we were not part of that. For example, the open government declaration that was made by the foundation partners was only released about two to three weeks before the open government partnership was formally launched.

    So at this stage I think all one can fairly say is that there is an issue of timing. Many other countries have not joined at this stage. I suspect government will address that issue.


  4. Anonymous7:35 am

    Interesting, if not surprising in some ways. It would be helpful if a journalist based in Canberra were to seek an on-the-record confirmation (or denial) of this, so that it is officially out in the open.

  5. Anonymous1:00 pm

    It seems someone took my advice, to seek an on the record statement.,australia-reserves-open-government-decision.aspx

    Ironically, it's not a very transparent or open statement.

  6. Anonymous1:02 pm

    Given the DFAT spokespersons comment in the ITNews article:

    "The Government is considering and consulting on the initiative," the spokesman said, citing a meeting attended by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in July last year.

    perhaps we could be told who is considering it, and who is being consulted, whether they will publish the consultation document, and when the consultation and consideration will be concluded.