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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Australia's Open Government Partnership ambition-twaddle or true commitment?

2016 should tell!

Judith Sloan writing in The Australian includes Australia's commitment to the OGP in her list of contenders for Twaddle of the Year 2015, along with the innovation statement:
My favourite part of the innovation statement is the bit about government as exemplar, an example of twaddle-speak itself. But let me turn to the master: “Right across the board you will see there are measures to ensure that government is digitally transformed, so that it is nimble, so that you can deal with government as easily as you can with eBay or with one of the big financial institutions.”
And just to give substance to this government as exemplar gig, you will be pleased to know that “Prime Minister Turnbull has committed the Australian government to membership of the Open Government Partnership and public consultation was launched to develop the National Action Plan for open government. The Open Government Partnership is a voluntary, multi-stakeholder international initiative created to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”
And here’s a further heads-up: “the Prime Minister’s aim is for the first Australian National Action Plan to include ambitious actions that support the OGP grand challenges of improving public services and better managing public resources. If we want this to happen, Australia needs your suggestions and input!”
Sloan in the end gives the prize to Ban Ki Moon for comments about the Paris climate conference.

The Prime Minister can put Sloan herself up there as a contender with deeds that match the words: by July 2016 an OGP National Action Plan developed in the true spirit of partnership with civil society containing a set of ambitious, concrete commitments to reform on transparency, open government, citizen participation and technological innovation.

And before the consultation process gets into second gear, canning the bill to abolish the Office of Australian Information Commissioner. 

The bill is opposed by a majority in the Senate and sits in the Bills List not just gathering dust but strengthening the hand of Sloan and others of sceptical bent.

The Australian Open Government Partnership Network and its members are prepared to take the PM at his word at this stage.

The Network's Interim Steering Committee is
Dr David Solomon (Accountability Roundtable), Chair,

Greg Thompson (Transparency International Australia)

Kat Szuminska (OpenAustralia Foundation)

Dr Nicholas Gruen (Open Knowlege Australia)
Leanne O'Donnell (Blueprint for Free Speech)

Jon Lawrence (Electronic Frontiers Australia)

Dr Johan Lidberg, School of Journalism Monash University

Craig Thomler, Social Media Planner, Digital Specialist, Gov 2.0 Advocate.

Convener Peter Timmins.

Sign in here to learn more about the Network as things move ahead in the new year. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

FOI veteran Waterford lets go with a few wild swings and low blows.

When Jack Waterford Editor- at- Large at The Canberra Times talks Freedom of Information, the rest of us listen. 

After all Waterford has been on this beat from the very beginning, lodging a raft of FOI applications on 1 December 1982, the day the Commonwealth FOI act commenced, followed by hundreds in the years since including two that went all the way to the High Court; was named the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year in 1985 for his work on FOI, and in 2007, Canberra Citizen of the year and a Member of the Order of Australia.

His opinion piece last week "FOI laws are resented and resisted" is as usual a good read, including some history about John Wood, another FOI champion, and commentary on the AAT decision in Wood and PM&C, the subject also of an earlier report by Chris Knaus about access to documents concerning the Ombudsman in 2011, Alan Asher.

Waterford on a roll
Waterford goes on to give the government a justified serve over the attempt to abolish the Office of Australian Information Commissioner, criticises the attacks on information access including by Public Service Commissioner John ('FOI very pernicious') Lloyd, and delivers a tough assessment of former Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan and the OAIC generally, stating
"I could never be convinced that most of the quasi-judicial officers of the office of the Australian Information Commissioner were ever very much in favour of FOI or, in practice, very likely to cause disclosure to occur, at least within a reasonable period of time."
That's a wild swing, low blow or both.

In getting stuck into the OAIC and McMillan, Waterford makes no mention of the factors beyond control of the office that impacted on performance of the OAIC since establishment in November 2010 and tops it off with an error about the earlier IC decision in Wood.

Wood case
Recounting the background to the AAT decision, Waterford writes that PM&C's arguments for keeping the document in dispute secret when the matter came before the OAIC a year previously "very much impressed the FOI Commissioner and received his fairly usual rubber stamp."

Well mostly, the arguments didn't impress the commissioner at all.

Deputy President Forgie in a decision that Waterford praises reached exactly the same decision as then commissioner Popple who he criticises: that subject to two deletions the document is not exempt:
80.For the reasons I have given, I affirm the decision of the Information Commissioner dated 19 December 2014...
(Of course Deputy President Forgie takes longer to get there adding along the way valuable guidance about the interpretation and application of the FOI act.)

Waterford in making the rubber stamp remark does not mention that the commissioner in that 2014 decision [83-119]  rejected the deliberative process exemption claims by PM&C for seven other documents consisting of briefs, question time briefs and briefing notes for Senate estimates hearings and a record of conversation between the Ombudsman and Secretary of the Department.

PM&C had argued disclosure would be contrary to the public interest, the end of 'frank and candid' with flow on dire consequences. Having not impressed or persuaded the commissioner the department did not seek further review of those parts of the commissioner's decision. Presumably departmental officers soldier on providing Prime Minister Turnbull (three prime ministers on from the one who received the briefing note) with frank and candid advice despite it all.

in his comments about the OAIC which has endured the axe hanging in the air for 19 months since the government announced the intention to abolish the office, Waterford does not mention issues that cumulatively hampered performance: limited powers and no sticks (eg review decisions not binding; no penalties), no political appetite for reforms and modifications to the scheme suggested by McMillan and others, fewer resources than anticipated and expected, and importantly a failure of leadership at the ministerial level that left McMillan to fly the flag for culture change while faced with senior public servants 'going red' at the mere mention of FOI and open government. 

Contrary to Waterford's comment that he can't think of one OAIC decision that has amounted to much, an SBS report this week suggests quite a bit of commendable OAIC disagreement with agency decisions: of the 352 IC decisions examined 
"141 (40 per cent) were to 'set aside' and change FOI decision outcomes completely..A further 38 (11 per cent) review decisions were to 'vary', where the OAIC mostly agreed with the FOI decisions made by government agencies, but disagreed with the reasoning."
That strike rate doesn't include mediated results that aren't formal IC decisions. Results aren't published. I expect many involved the agency giving ground. .

I've been critical generally and sometimes from personal experience of some IC decisions and of unacceptable delays, and concerned that few own motion investigations or compliance reviews have been undertaken. Much of the fault lies at the highest levels of government, where Attorney General Brandis is apparently still keen to bring the whole show down.

However the wild swings and low blows in the Waterford commentary aren't justified.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Privacy Commissioner not Australian Information Commissioner in the money?

I'd like to think Paul Farrell in The Guardian and others on social media are right that additional funding for the Office of Australian Information Commissioner in the Mid Year budget update for "Enhanced Welfare Payment Integrity — non-employment income data matching" until 2019 may signal the end of the long drawn out unsuccessful government attempt to close the office. 

The funds are earmarked for the privacy functions of the office. 

The Budget in May included funding for privacy functions and (reduced) funding for FOI functions in 2015-16 but nothing in forward estimates for the three years to follow.  The government plan is to scatter some functions around including packing the Privacy Commissioner off to the Australian Human Rights Commission if/when the abolition bill passes the Senate. The FOI oversight and review functions would be scrapped.

However another budget document revealed $4.2 million was allocated in the Budget over four years for the Privacy Commissioner to provide oversight of privacy implications arising from the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 and the Counter‑Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Act 2014

The latest additional funding could pass as more of the same. That is money to accompany the Privacy Commissioner wherever he ends up.

Let's hope the funding decision indicates something else: That someone has joined the dots to see that standing firm (without majority support in the Senate to pass the bill) jars with the grander more recent government decision to embrace transparent, open government and to this end, proceed with membership of the Open Government Partnership. The decision requires endorsement of a declaration that includes a commitment 
to providing access to effective remedies when information or the corresponding records are improperly withheld, including through effective oversight of the recourse process.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Australian Open Government Partnership Network Update

The Australian Open Government Partnership Network has a Landing Page if you are interested in linking up with other civic minded democracy supporters and reformers. Help spread the word. A website and online Forum soon we hope.

The network is an independent coalition of individuals and organisations formed for the purpose of engaging with government in the development of Australia's OGP National Action Plan. The network will provide a forum for the exchange of information and ideas on areas for reform, seek to ensure the action plan is developed in the true spirit of partnership, and work to assist government in the determination of priorities for consideration.

A member of the Network Steering Committee and Co-founder of OpenAustralia Foundation Katherine (Kat) Szuminska has been invited to the annual civil society peer exchange meeting in The Hague, Netherlands in January for civil society leaders that are pivotal OGP actors at home.
The Government run information sessions commenced in Brisbane yesterday, and continue in Sydney this evening (look forward to seeing you there), Melbourne tomorrow and Canberra on Thursday. Meanwhile, hardly stopping for breath, the Government is rolling out the second stage of the consultation - through to the end of February. Don't rush, everyone in Canberra is about to down tools for a spell.

For your interest, maybe, my chat about the OGP with Jen Fleming on ABC Radio yesterday-at 1.49.00 in this recording (disappears in seven days).

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Media release: Australian Open Government Partnership Network

Network of civic citizens to engage on open government
 A national coalition of organisations and individuals is gearing up to respond to the Federal Government’s invitation to engage on issues concerning how to make government work better, focusing on transparency, open government, citizen participation and technological innovation.

The government has unveiled plans for wide ranging consultation over the next six months in the course of development of a National Action Plan to complete membership requirements of the Open Government Partnership. Information sessions are scheduled this week in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Australia announced the intention to join the partnership in May 2013 but had not progressed the application until the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet last month released details of steps to finalise membership by July 2016.

This requires development in partnership with the public of a two year plan of concrete commitments for reform.

The Australian Open Government Partnership Network will bring together a wide range of civil society groups and individuals.

The Chair, former Queensland Integrity Commissioner David Solomon welcomed the announcement and the government’s commitment to the Open Government Declaration.

When Australia was invited to join in September 2011, the partnership had eight members including the United States, United Kingdom, Indonesia and Brazil.

 In 2015 sixty nine countries have completed or are in the process of completing membership requirements.

Dr Solomon said “ Australia has stood to the side while reformers elsewhere identified and acted upon plans to improve government and government engagement with the public.” We look forward to working with government now to catch up.”

The network will provide a forum for the exchange of information and ideas on areas for reform, seek to ensure the plan is developed in the true spirit of partnership, and work to assist government in the determination of priorities for consideration.

“Democracy is a defining feature of good government" Dr Solomon said.

“Listening, discussing and taking on board the thoughts and ideas of the citizenry is a vital element in making democracy work.”

Media Contact: Network Convener Peter Timmins-0413256777.
Organisations and individuals interested in the network-email website and forum coming soon.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

An independent network of supporters of Open Government Partnership?

Sorry for silence here for a week or so , but.. ...

I've been busy working towards a get together in Sydney on Friday 11 December of some of the organisations and individuals who wish to engage with the Federal government on issues concerning the Open Government Partnership, given consultation is about to start on development of a national action plan of reform measures around transparency, accountability, open government and citizen participation.

Experience in other OGP member countries, the UK for instance is that an independent network can play an important role in collaborating with and challenging government to develop and implement ambitious reforms through membership of the partnership. 

Not a great time of the year for getting people together at short notice, but  invitations have gone out and look forward to exchanging thoughts with those who can make it.

Organisations that have expressed interest in the independent network idea include

Accountability Roundtable

Australian Communications Consumer Action Network

Australian Council of Social Services

Blueprint for Free Speech

Civil Society Australia 

Code for Australia

Creative Commons Australia

Electronic Frontiers Australia

Independent Community Accountability Network

Internet Australia

Open Australia Foundation

Open Knowledge Australia

Public Interest Advocacy Center

Synod of Victoria and Tasmania Uniting Church of Australia

Transparency International Australia 

There are other irons in the fire and individuals who support the concept will of course be part of this.The priority at the moment is to see if we can put the foundations in place.

Email me if you would like to register an interest.

Government information sessions about the OGP and the national action plan consultations are scheduled next week in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Get along if you can. I'll be at Sydney on Tuesday. 

Democracy is hard but worthwhile work. We can make a difference.


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Open Government Partnership activity off and running

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
 If you haven't so far, look at the published material, subscribe to the OGP Au mailing list for updates and news or follow the OGP Au RSS feed

The department is interested in feedback by 11 December on the vision and framework  (Stage 1 Blog post) and on the draft Background material. Tweet to #ogpau.

Information sessions are scheduled in the week of 14-18 December in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.The Canberra session will be broadcast live for online participation and video recordings of sessions will made available online where possible in the week following.

The information sessions are for citizens and organisations interested in understanding and potentially contributing to the process of creating Australia’s first 2-year OGP National Action Plan.

The sessions will provide a background on the Open Government Partnership, what Australia must do to fulfil its membership requirements, and how the community can work with the Australian Government to develop the National Action Plan collaboratively, including how the 6 month consultation will work.

There will be an opportunity for questions about Australia's OGP membership process and how individuals  and organisations can work constructively with the Australian Government throughout the consultation.
Details are:

Brisbane: 14 December from 4:00pm – 5:15pm (local time) - immediately prior to an Open Data Institute Queensland event, hence the timing and shortened session.
Sydney: 15 December from 5:00 – 6:30pm (local time)

Canberra: 16 December from 5:00 – 6:30pm (local time) LIVE STREAMED
To participate online register as a remote participant.

Melbourne: 17 December from 5:00 – 6:30pm (local time)

For more government information about OGP see the OGPau website 

Non government-civil society 
As the name indicates the Open Government Partnership is a partnership, a partnership between government and the citizenry to jointly explore how to make government better through initiatives to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.
The experience of other countries well down the OGP path highlights the important role in support of non-government participation of a mechanism independent of government for those who wish to contribute to the development of the national action plan. All the more so as there is no formal mechanism such as a stakeholder forum or advisory committee in government plans so far.

So individuals and organisations that advocated Australia join the partnership are in the process of establishing an Australian Open Government Partnership Network along the lines of the UK model.  

The network would collaborate with and challenge government to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms through membership of the OGP.

Dr David Solomon, former Queensland Integrity Commissioner has agreed to take the Chair on an interim basis. I'm acting as convener of the group and we are hopeful of a first opportunity to talk through some of the issues in Sydney on 10 or 11 December.

Organisations that have to date expressed interest in being part of the network include  Transparency International Australia, Accountability Roundtable, Electronic Frontiers Australia, Open Australia Foundation, Open Knowledge Foundation, Tax Justice Network, Civil Society Australia, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, and Internet Australia. I'm waiting to hear back from others.

Individuals will be invited to join once we have the nucleus of a network in place.

Those interested not on my radar so far please email me or call 0413256777.

Good luck to us all.