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Steven Price: Progress on Open Government Partnership?

Op-ed on Open Government Partnership

Steven Price

At a meeting in the beating heart of the government precinct late last month, a roomful of experts, officials and interested observers discussed a government programme. They weren’t impressed with it. Can you guess what it was?

“It looks more like a conversation the executive government is having with itself,” said Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

The author of a leading textbook on access to information, Graham Taylor, said he had no idea it was going on. “There was no effort to ensure people knew about it,” he said.

“How many people outside of Wellington are part of this?” asked environmentalist and academic Cath Wallace.

“I didn’t know about it until April,” said political commentator Colin James.

What were they talking about? The government’s Action Plan on open government.

You haven’t heard of it either? In 2013, New Zealand agreed to join the Open Government Partnership, a group of 66 countries working to promote government that is open, accountable and responsive to citizens. Participating governments agree draw up Action Plans in consultation with their people to take concrete steps to improve their transparency and accountability.

Our first action plan was released last October. Last week, the government released its own draft report card on its progress. The government thinks it’s doing pretty well. It says we have made “significant progress” on our commitments, which are “extremely ambitious”.

I’ve been hired by the Open Government Partnership to conduct an independent assessment of our progress. As you can tell by some of the quotes above, some of the people I’ve been talking to don’t agree with the government.

Our action plan contains four commitments. The government will keep reporting publicly on the results of our Better Public Services programme, and particularly the promise to make it increasingly easy to deal with government online. It will also refresh our refresh our ICT strategy, focusing on plans to make data more open. It will review progress of the Kia Tutahi Relationship Accord, a set of principles about how the government will engage with community organisations. And it will consult on Transparency International’s recent report recommending changes to enhance systems of public integrity, and report back to Ministers.

Most of these initiatives were already underway when the action plan was drawn up, leading some critics to suggest that our plan is merely an exercise in retro-fitting. But the OGP lets governments include existing programmes, as long as they then stretch them or speed them up in some way.

Officials point out that New Zealand is already much more open than most other countries. They say that the four initiatives are bold and potentially transformative. The OGP is about improving public services, increasing public integrity and better managing public services. These initiatives do just that.

Officials argue that Better Public Services is bravely setting specific targets on things like reducing violent crime and increasing early childhood education and publicly measuring the government’s performance against them. The ICT strategy is opening datasets that are improving government. The review of Kia Tutahi is on target and there has already been progress on implementing Transparency International’s recommendations. There could have been better consultation at the outset, but the government hopes to fix that in next year’s action plan. And the State Services Commission has appointed a stakeholder advisory group to help them develop the existing action plan and formulate the next one.

But there are many critics. Public policy expert Murray Petrie calls it one of the least ambitious action plans of all the participating countries. Some note that Cabinet decided the main parts of the plan very early, conducted very little consultation, and ignored most of the feedback received.

Improving public services, opening datasets, and enabling digital transactions may be fine things, they say, but they have little to do with the OGP’s core principles of transparency, accountability and public participation. Is the government really doing anything it wasn’t doing already? Is committing to “reporting” “refreshing” and “reviewing” really much of a commitment at all? Shouldn’t the plan include things like concrete steps to reform our official information laws, improve social and environmental reporting, and publish a plain-English budget? (It’s also surprising how many people have told me that the biggest open government problem is the culture of fear that prevents many experts – officials and people dependent on government funding – from speaking out in ways that the government might find uncongenial).

The government is seeking feedback on its draft self-assessment by October 16. What do you make of our action plan and the process that led to it, and what should be in the next one? You can head on over to the State Services Commission’s website, read it, and have your say. Or you can contact me with your thoughts. Open government requires the government to be transparent and to listen; but it also requires the citizenry to speak.

***

Steven Price is a Wellington lawyer and the New Zealand country researcher for the Open Govenrment Partnership’s Independent Reporting Mechanism. He can be reached at steven.price@vuw.ac.nz

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