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An Open Government Plan developed in secrecy

Public Good
Sent: Sunday 31 August 2014 12.00 a.m.

Media release

An Open Government Plan developed in secrecy is a contradiction in terms

The State Services Commission sent NZ’s Open Government Action Plan to the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) Secretariat on 31 July. The countries involved in the OGP since its inception - from the UK and US to Indonesia and Brazil - have signed up to meaningful and aspirational goals: better oversight, greater transparency and opportunities to involve the public in decision making.

This a great initiative for New Zealand then? On the one hand it is: NZ is committed to signing up. However without barely a nod to openness or the involvement of the public such an initiative would suggest the Government pre-selected the initiatives that were to be used as the broad themes for NZ’s plan and in the two meetings with the community and voluntary sector that did discuss the plan, participants were presented with these as ‘faits accomplis’.

The government’s proposed themes are:
• Better Public Services
• ICT Strategy and Action Plan which aims to improve digital access to government services
• The recommendations of the Transparency International 2013 assessment of New Zealand.

Meeting invitees gave a strong message that an “Open Government Partnership Action Plan” needed to start from widespread consultation, openness and non-partisan ideas, not a pre-determined, pro-National Party agenda. That was back in April. Subsequently the Cabinet has signed off the plan and sent it to OGP international secretariat for ratification. Aside from the broad themes no-one outside of government has a clue about what the Action Plan contains.

So, apart from the secrecy about the OGP Action Plan is there anything really wrong with the Government’s approach?

I think there is.

The OGP action plan is about open government. It beggars belief that its content is a closely held secret. The OGP’s international secretariat also demands community involvement in the development of OGP Action Plans. New Zealand’s Action Plan is almost guaranteed to fail on this count. This is surely embarrassing for New Zealand’s usual good reputation for openness and good governance.

Next, two of the proposed themes are highly partisan being taken from National Party programmes that are related to the Government’s privatisation and cost-cutting agenda.

Better Public Services was never consulted on and its DNA it assumes that privatising out will deliver better public services than public servants can. It presupposes that complex public services like social welfare and housing are essentially similar to private services like using a credit card or making an airline booking and can be delivered effectively under contract.

The second element of the plan is the Government’s Information and Communications Technology Strategy and Action Plan. However, the ICT Action Plan’s main purpose is to deliver savings of $100m/year to Government, which it aims to do by moving to ‘digital by default’ services. It does this without consideration for people who cannot use the standardised digital model because of poverty, disability, distance or language and literacy skills. This is important. Almost a quarter of a million New Zealand households have no internet connection.

The third strand of the proposed action plan – the implementation of some of Transparency International’s 2013 recommendations - is more promising. The recommendations are high-quality, evidence- based, non-partisan proposals arrived at after an open process and wide consultation. They include sorting out our political party funding, securing our strong corruption-free reputation in changing circumstances, and pointing out that our media, with its narrow owner-base and funding problems, is a bar to a healthy democracy. Even here the details proposed by government are nonetheless still a) secret and b) predetermined by Government and c) there are no guarantees that the government and community priorities would be aligned.

Given the use of urgency, low levels of meaningful consultation and increased level of concern expressed by NGOs about their advocacy role and more recently the Dirty politics revelations the Government must realise it is on shaky ground regarding openness and transparency. It has not been open with us about many things and so it’s hard to see how having NZ join up to the Open Government Partnership will be seen as anything more than lipservice. Even the most Pollyanna-ish amongst us might wonder quite what would change with an OGP Action Plan that has been devised by government with minimal public input and signed off in secret.

Better Public Services Results programme showing the preference for ‘best sourcing’ or business style services and privatised delivery.
ICT Strategy and Action Plan to 2017 showing savings as the main objective.
Transparency International NZ National Integrity System Assessment
Transparency International Recommendations
The State Services Commission's Open government partnership web page
The International Open Government Partnership (OGP) website.
State Services Minister Jonathan Coleman’s 13 November 2013 press release
IGPS lecture and resources about the open government partnership
Stomping all over ‘grass-roots’ advocacy and activism (presentation of 2013 research results) Sandra Grey, Charles Sedgwick and Jared Commerer
Fears, constraints and contracts by Sandra Grey and Charles Sedgwick

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