Search This Blog

Monday, February 11, 2013

Australia and OGP, news both heartening and disappointing

Heartening that the Office of Australian Information Commissioner released information on Friday that provides a fuller picture of where things stand regarding Australian membership of the Open Government Partnership. And that the OAIC and Attorney General's have at least been thinking about it since May last year when the Attorney General said 'let's join." The outline of what is required for a formal application and a path toward the London Conference later in the year is being discussed between agencies.

Also good to see that the OAIC responded to the request for documents released via Righttoknow in best practice mode, a contrast to other recent experience. Within a week the office provided informal (Administrative Access) to the full text of all three communications with other agencies about the OGP in 2012-13, as well as providing contextual information in an accompanying letter. No run - around of the oft encountered variety there.

However disappointing  that behind the scenes, activity on OGP membership at AG's and the OAIC has been at snail's pace. We already knew Foreign Affairs and Trade weren't paying much (any?) attention. And that the thinking within the bureaucracy on what might flow from membership seems limited and, well, unexciting. You have to wonder if anyone on the inside has ventured forth to discuss what could be with anyone outside the parliamentary triangle? 

(Update-later developments here and here)

The documents
The documents released are in chronological order, a letter in June 2012 from the Attorney-General to the Information Commissioner noting in August 2011 the US Secretary of State had invited Australia to join the OGP and advising she had written to the Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Minister for Broadband, Communication and the Digital Economy proposing Australia join.

A letter dated 17 August 2012 from the Attorney-General’s Department adding that there had been some discussions about the OGP with PM&C, listing membership criteria and other details, outlining in advance of ministerial approval a timetable that would have Australia join and develop a National action Plan by December 2012, how Australia might undertake the processes required, and inviting the OAIC as the putative lead agency to outline what it could do in this regard.

And a letter dated 10 January 2013 from the Information Commissioner in response, indicating a path to membership in 2013, thoughts on what is involved, the resources needed, and outlining its case for lead agency.

Australia and the OGP
The August and January letters evidence limited, safe within the square thinking at this point on the possibilities that could flow from a government-civil society partnership of the kind contemplated by the OGP. 

Sure there is an acknowledgement that "Australia is well placed to make a valuable contribution to a global open government movement. At a regional level Australia's ties could be strengthened with countries that are active OGP participants." And that we could put a respectable list of three domestic projects into our National Action Plan.

But reading the documents you would hardly say it's a big or potential new deal. Staff and resource issues are the biggies-the OAIC is skint and would need two new positions, plus whatever other costs would be involved. It could prepare a bid for the next budget round, and would consider secondment opportunities from other Australian Government agencies. But it can't do much without help.

It is right to point out that without appropriate resourcing "Australia's participation in the OGP would necessarily be minimal."

Limited ambition
But it is sounding a bit like that anyway. These documents make signing on sound like a slight advance on "business as usual." 

For example,"participation is not likely to pose a practical or policy difficulty", "public consultation within Australia on a draft country action plan would not pose great difficulty", and the existing Information Advisory Committee appointed under the Australian Information Commissioner Act could fit the bill as a 'multi stakeholder forum' that can be regularly consulted. Looking further ahead, even the self assessment of progress after 12 months "may not be a troubling issue" if as AG's suggests, on the home front we stick mainly with doing something on open data to fill the requirement for a National Action Plan.

On this score the OAIC correctly observes that the content of our plan would depend on what emerges from consultation, but ambition at this early stage is limited. The government could get the ball rolling by suggesting we could complement "the substantial work undertaken in recent years in Australia to develop government information policy, promote innovation through open data and embrace the digital economy," repackage whatever emerges from the Hawke FOI review, and do something to ensure that government papers that are published online only are permanently archived and accessible and don't become digital dust.

Grander vision?
All close to the OAIC patch. But OGP participation could and should involve a bit more than this given it is a global effort to make governments better, is a partnership with civil society at national and international level, and aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. 

Partnership could involve reaching out and seeking to engage on big picture governance issues with an admittedly inchoate civil society network, busying away in various silos and rarely sighted in some of this discussion. 

Public consultation Attorney General's Department style is inadequate and hardly designed to work to this end, if the process adopted for the Hawke review is a guide.

AG's says it "is doubtful that there is any advantage to Australia in developing a separate and additional consultation mechanism for OGP purposes." But the Information Advisory Committee mentioned by the OAIC and AG's as capable of doing this job includes two people from what could be described as civil society organisations and is a long way short of a multi-stakeholder national forum.

Our yet to be selected OGP Grand Challenge could and should be loftier and go far beyond the OAIC suggestions. For example "Increase public integrity" is one of the five categories specified. This could be suggested as something to put front and centre to link with our National Anti-Corruption Plan (now overdue), addressing our 500 plus secrecy provisions in legislation including s 70 of the Crimes Act (three years since the ALRC recommended this), leading edge whistleblower protection legislation (years overdue), and increased transparency outside FOI in areas such as lobbying and political donations, two of many integrity issues that struggle for attention.

The OAIC  case for lead agency status includes a claim that it has a strong working relationship with other key information management agencies, including the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Australian Government Information Management Office, Attorney-General's Department, National Archives of Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But others who need to be rounded up include DFAT, AUSAID, RET, to name three. 

Whoever drives this ship needs stature and clout and the ear of ministers who command attention and get things done. Alas it's a long journey. But in an election year with both our leaders saying "trust me" OGP membership could have appeal as an exciting opportunity to put some life into our democratic practices, not an exercise in keeping the head down, and basically steady ahead but more of the same.
We live in hope!

No comments:

Post a Comment