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How To Vote To Ensure A More Open Government

And How To Advance The Issue Without Politicians

Part two of an 'Opening the Election 2017' series on Open Government in Aotearoa. If you are still wondering what open government is, and why it is important to NZ then the first article is a good start for you.

Many of us are likely already over this current election campaign. The debate seems all too often superficial and divisive and focused on personality politics, the same old tired generational bias and entrenched ideological positions. Real pressing concerns about the inadequacy of our democracy in New Zealand are not being addressed and the main parties are offering very little in the way of radical thinking. We can almost be forgiven for getting the feeling that this three-yearly exercise is all a bit of a meaningless pantomime. Many of us want more direct control and ability to influence important decisions about our future on an ongoing basis. Some of us (mostly the younger 18-24 year old group of which over 200’000 eligible voters are not even registered) seem to just want to disengage completely.

It is essential that we open up our political and economic institutions to allow greater participation by citizens or we face a continued slide towards disengagement, authoritarianism and centralisation of power and finances in major political parties. IF we do want a more open and democratic political system in the near future, we need to work towards this from two perspectives.

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Firstly, we need to use our vote wisely to ensure the government we elect on Saturday is serious about opening up government and giving citizens more opportunity to participate meaningfully.

So which parties are serious about open government?
- Spoiler alert, not National, but then anyone paying attention to the reports on their performance under the Open Government Partnership (OGP) so far would already know that.
- Another spoiler alert, sorry to say but probably not Labour either. Labour may be slightly more clued up on open government than National, but still don’t appear to take the need for openness or participation seriously enough. Labour’s commitment to open government essentially amounts to saying that they will review processes. We have all heard that line too many times before to take it seriously.
* More information on how I reached these conclusions is available further on.

Secondly, regardless of the makeup of the Government after September 23, it is up to us as citizens to keep pushing from outside the system for more openness, transparency and accountability. We cannot just wait for politicians to progress open government, or sit back and wait another three years for the next election. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and nor will politicians vote to give themselves less control and relevance. As discussed below, however, there are mechanisms in place by which we citizens can progress this important issue.

How Open Is New Zealand Really?

New Zealand has traditionally been considered as a highly transparent and open government. In addition to a strong and enforceable code of law and a well-educated population, we have a history of leadership on human rights issues such as universal suffrage since 1893. We have a relatively corruption-free and merit-based public service originating with the Public Service Act 1912 and a sound Freedom of Information system with the Ombudsman and Auditor General. We were also ranked in 2016 as the 2nd easiest country in which to do business in the world.

In a sense our reputation as a leader in the open government space still has some merit, however, recent developments have seen it deteriorating fast as very real cracks appear in our veneer of transparency. The Panama Papers revealed the scale of the lack of transparency in New Zealand’s international trust ownership and international investment laws. Issues have also emerged around lack of transparency over political party funding issues, lack of independence of public servants and declining Freedom of Information standards.

With our strong historical baseline in this area and stated ambition to build a highly skilled and technology-focused economy, New Zealand should be aiming to position itself as a leader in the open government space not a follower. Recent developments, however, have unfortunately placed us resolutely in the stragglers category.

Despite the fact that there has been little to no discussion of these wider democratic reform issues in this election campaign, there are very real problems with our democracy. As former Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer recently wrote on the state of democratic participation in New Zealand and the OIA:

“Democracy and democratic processes involve much more than elections. They also involve ongoing dialogue and discussion between the governors and the governed. Here, New Zealand is falling short. We are a democracy, but we are not a deliberative democracy. The public has few opportunities for deep involvement in political decision-making – at best, they are consulted, often after the government has already made up its mind. The result is alienation from and cynicism about political processes. Voter turnout declines from election to election. Many eligible voters cannot see the point. One important reason for this alienation is lack of information.”

Max Rashbrooke also analyses how ‘open’ New Zealand is in his report Bridges Both Ways: Transforming the openness of New Zealand Government released in June 2017. Rashbrooke first outlines the good news that by international standards, New Zealand already has a relatively open government. We have open central government budgeting information, are fourth on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and regularly rank first on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. A 2013 review of New Zealand’s systems for ensuring integrity found that there was “very little corruption”. We have free and fair elections, our democratic institutions are broadly supported by the public, and information about many parts of government is freely available. Our courts act as a check on the other parts of the State, the public has a chance to have its say on many proposed laws and regulations, and key oversight bodies such as the Electoral Commission largely function well.

Rashbrooke rightly points out that New Zealanders should be grateful for all these things, however, then goes on to give us the not-so-good news:

“But the country cannot be blind to serious – and growing – failings. There is evidence that it is not properly fostering a political culture where citizens can access the information they need and public participation is encouraged. It is widely accepted, for instance, that the Official Information Act is frequently circumvented and misused. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index, meanwhile, gave New Zealand a low ranking for its ‘political culture.’ ”

And he continues;

“New Zealand also makes limited use of the democratic innovations that are encouraging direct citizen participation around the world. Public participation is not just a means to improve policy and outcomes – and there is good evidence that it does just that – but is also increasingly recognised as a fundamental human right. But although new technologies have made it easier than ever before for politicians and citizens to interact, New Zealand has not put the same effort into creating spaces for democratic online engagement that it has for transactional government services.”

In other words, there is still much room for improvement and we cannot afford to be complacent. There are plenty of recent controversies that threaten the nation’s reputation for integrity. Bryce Edwards recently highlighted 5 examples of corruption; the Peter Thiel citizenship saga, our continued tax haven status, CERA corruption, OIA abuses and roading rorts. As Isaac Davison states, “New Zealand’s place at the top of the world doesn’t mean this country is free of corruption – it just means that it has less than other countries.”

Open Government Partnership - Missed Opportunities?

New Zealand’s involvement in the 85-member nation Open Government Partnership (OGP) is an important indicator of our progress in this area compared to other countries. Our effort has been pretty disappointing since we joined in 2013. The most recent plan National Action Plan (NAP) for 2016-18 was released in November 2016 and is a mixed bag of promising indications and missed opportunities. It makes some long overdue progress and is certainly an improvement on the previous 2014-16 Action Plan - but then again it’s pretty easy to improve on nothing. The thorough independent report from OGP appointed reviewer Steven Price exposed the inadequate public engagement and unambitious commitments on the first NAP.

This new NAP is at first glance deceivingly progressive with the right buzzwords and vague commitments. However, on closer inspection it falls far short of what is needed to make New Zealand a leader in the open government space and an open and transparent society fit for the modern age. It appears to be another missed opportunity to really progress the agenda of open government over the next two years.

Despite the poor opportunities to engage in the process, New Zealand civil society was pretty unanimous and clear on what mattered most to our communities in the action plan. The most popular suggestions in the engagement process were things like: whistle-blowers, transparency on beneficial ownership (e.g. foreign trusts), greater political transparency (e.g. campaign finances), a whole-of-government framework for enhanced public participation, and real OIA reform.

Unfortunately it does not look like there was much strong or substantive progress on these core demands in the latest action plan. No Right Turn blogger Idiot Savant describes it as “a pallid, unambitious document continuing the government policy of trying to do as little as possible while not spending any money or changing anything substantive”. Mr Savant has been watching this issue closely over the past years and making insightful observations based on OIA requests and solid analysis. He also points out that Australia’s new action plan included many of the same interventions that our civic society demanded of our government and is an example of what we could have done with ambitious and meaningful reforms.

The fact that, at the time, the Government had not actually allocated any money towards any of the vague commitments included in the plan lead many to conclude that this plan was yet another example of the government doing the bare minimum necessary to prevent expulsion from the OGP (a realistic possibility at one point) and to spin it to look like they are making progress.

Some Positive Signs

TINZ Chief Executive Janine McGruddy, however, still believes this plan is ‘a solid roadmap to achieving more openness and delivers a strong positive message on the importance of transparency and the need for new initiatives.’ On the point that no money has been allocated to these commitments, McGruddy says while that is true, there are finally very good people designated to each of these areas. These are civil servants who are dedicated to making the commitments happen and she believes many of them are committed to doing so by whatever means necessary.

In particular McGruddy is happy to see the inclusion of Commitment 2: ‘Improve access to official information by publishing responses to requests on government websites and developing principles for more proactive release.’ She believes that the OIA process is already showing promising signs of improvement since Peter Boshier has taken over as Chief Ombudsman and set about implementing the improvements outlined in the 2015 review.

The Problem Of Engaging Citizens

This lacklustre involvement in the Open Government Partnership to date has acutely highlighted the poor level of transparency and citizen engagement practices across the board by our government institutions. The OGP leadership, TINZ, civic society groups and many others have all rightly criticised the government’s repeated refusal to effectively engage New Zealanders in the OGP Action Plan process since 2013. The State Services Commission has even admitted that they need to do better at this next time around here.

One of the core requirements of the Open Government Partnership is that member governments actively engage citizens in the process of co-creating the National Action Plans. Keitha Booth, the new OGP appointed independent reporter for New Zealand’s NAP has stated as follows in a recent interview with TINZ:

“OGP plans require governments to engage with and to facilitate the participation of civil society in the planning process. I find that the concept of civil society is not well understood in New Zealand, either at a government level or in our wider society.”

Perhaps, then, the most important, commitment in the new NAP is the one indicating the government’s intent to improve the engagement with civil society around the Open Government Partnership moving forward:

“Commitment 5: We will build a flexible and enduring platform for engagement between the New Zealand government and New Zealand communities around the Open Government Partnership.” (New Zealand OGP-NAP 2016-18)

This commitment to better engagement hopefully means that we can expect far greater opportunities for civil society input into developing the next NAP for 2018-2020. However, commitments themselves are meaningless and this really depends on whether the incoming government will be more serious about building a real partnership with civil society around their OGP commitments.

Keeping Up With Technology

As Rashbrooke points out, New Zealand has also been slow to adapt to the potential for new technologies to advance open government. We have failed to create conditions to support harnessing of open source technology and open government data practices and as a result we are now ranked only 6th globally in terms of Open Data.

Prime Minister Bill English is very interested in the data space and spoke at the Open Source Open Society Conference in 2016. As Keith Ng has pointed out “Bill English is the most data nerdy Prime Minister we have ever had.” That has some positives, however, it is concerning to many including Ng that English’s focus in this area is a big data ‘social investment’ agenda. Ng, a self-proclaimed ‘data nerd’ cautions that English’s dream of an evidence-based ‘datatopia’ could go horribly wrong. His point is that “governance isn’t science” and this social investment approach risks ignoring the complexity and human elements of public policy. “Data needs to be backed up (by) knowledge, expertise and analysis (shout-out to all the faceless bureaucrats!). Rigour and discipline need to be backed up by vision and imagination about what could be.”

We need to ensure to focus on the right type of open data – one with a human and decentralised focus on increasing participation and adding to our human talents. However, the way the National Party has approached the OGP process thus far, has been to focus on certain very limited aspects of data use that has not really anything to do with open government at all. Instead they appear to be using this process to drive an ideological agenda around so-called ‘big-data’ and the ‘social investment’ approach. This approach seeks to use open data in a very narrow sense that it is opening our data to the government and corporations, but not the other way around. The danger of this narrow government data focus is that it would drive us closer to becoming an authoritarian surveillance state.

There are some positive indications of progress on the open data front. The Government commissioned a consultation on Open Data in late 2016. The Open Government Data Programme (Stats NZ) is now using the input gathered through this engagement to “inform the review of what principles will guide the release of and access to New Zealand open data.” It seems likely from the feedback gained that this review will recommend implementing the International Open Data Charter. Adopting this charter would be a more positive start and would ensure the dystopian elements of open data are checked at the door. If the review ultimately falls short of recommending this, then we had better be vigilant.

The uptake of Open Source Software by New Zealand government institutions may also be helped somewhat by a 2016 policy statement on government use of open source software developed by the Open Government Information and Data Programme (OGIDP) at Land Information New Zealand (LINZ). I previously covered this New Zealand Government Open Access and Licensing – Software Extension (NZGOAL-SE) policy in detail here. However, unfortunately this policy statement is not binding on government agencies, so it will likely take some time before we start to see a major impact in the adoption of open source and the resulting flow on benefits to innovation and economic growth. It would be great to see a future government make this policy mandatory to increase its impact.

What Can We Do To Progress Open Government?

The following steps are my recommendations as to how we can work as citizens both within and outside the political system to ensure we create the best conditions for a flourishing of Open Government in New Zealand.

1. Vote For Parties That Value Open Government

So which parties are serious about this? Who should you vote for if you believe transparency; accountability and participation are really important and want better conditions for open government initiatives next year? Thankfully Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) sent six questions to each political party asking about their position on topics important to the TINZ mission of transparency and accountability. The responses and full TINZ analysis is available here.

So which parties did best? According to TINZ, the answers ranged from the belligerent (New Zealand First) to thoughtful (TOP, United Future, the NZ Democratic Party and the Greens). The Maori Party's response reflects its long-standing commitment to address corruption through attention to detail in its stated anti-corruption policy.

The TINZ commentary on these responses first sets out their high hopes given all of the parliamentary debate and activity on the issue since 2015 around the Panama Papers, the Shewan Report etc. Then it goes on to express overall disappointment at some of the responses:

“Sadly, many of the Parties' responses indicated a lack of the basic knowledge. If this had been an exam, more than a third of those tested (the Conservative Party, Act, NZ First and TOP, which might be excused as a newcomer) would have scored less than 50%.”

The six TINZ questions were related to transparency and accountability in the following areas:
• Campaign funding
• Transparency regarding the Official Information Act
• Anti-corruption (two questions)
• Protection for whistleblowers
• Candidates’ conflicting interests
Here is how the parties scored according to the TINZ analysis of the six questions asked:


TINZ state that despite recent achievements in addressing corruption and a stated commitment to safeguarding New Zealand’s reputation, The National Party’s answers reflected limited knowledge of open government issues. For example, they showed little understanding of the key features of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #16 to set in place (i) good governance to prevent corruption and (ii) a consistent international measure to monitor levels of corruption. TINZ states that the National Party’s approach to its candidates’ conflict is less rigorous than the policies it imposes on public servants and that its answers didn’t do justice to the record of the National Government over its last 3 years in office.


TINZ states that the New Zealand Democratic Party (which hasn’t been represented in Parliament for the past 30 years) showed a high level of understanding about more transparent ways of being accountable for political party funding, improving responsiveness of official information requests, managing conflicts and strengthening protective disclosure for whistleblowers.

United Future and The Labour Party

TINZ state that United Future and The Labour Party both demonstrated some awareness of the need for greater transparency around the disclosure of party funding sources, access to official information, the need to monitor and review the effectiveness of corruption laws and of the protective disclosure law.

The Green, Labour and Maori Parties

TINZ states that the Green, Labour and Maori Parties’ answers demonstrated greater knowledge than the others about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and, in particular, how Goal 16’s strong governance provision could assist in preventing corruption.

Maori Party

TINZ states that in previous surveys, the Maori Party has been the only party with evidence of an anti-corruption policy. TINZ were pleased to see that when it came to providing more detailed answers to some specific questions about what its policy is, the Maori Party’s answers showed an understanding of the issues.

Green Party

It is the Greens, though, who describe their anti-corruption policies in the most detail. TINZ heralds the Green Party’s policy to appoint a commission and citizens’ assembly to investigate public funding for political parties as an opportunity to address this issue before it becomes too late with wealthy parties effectively crowding out those without resources.

TINZ also strongly approves of the Green’s policy to:

• take a zero-tolerance approach to corruption;
• amend legislation to make facilitation payments illegal;
• make lobbying transparent through a public register;
• facilitate nationwide dialogue about open government/ constitutional issues;
• support the UN SDGs;
• to protect whistleblowers;
• and publish information about the pecuniary interests of all Green candidates on their website.

TINZ were understandably pleased that the Green party had actually read and taken note of the recommendations in Chapter 6 of TINZ Integrity Plus 2013 New Zealand National Integrity System Assessment: “What is especially impressive are the Green’s fresh ideas to make lobbying more transparent by requiring Ministers to include organisations consulted in Regulatory Impact Statements and explanatory notes, and, to remove lobbyists’ Parliament access cards.”

Which Parties Are Committed To Participatory Democracy

Another (and perhaps the most important) aspect of Open Government is Citizen participation in democracy. This was something not addressed directly by the TINZ questions.


As mentioned above, the National Party record on engagement and participation has been utterly terrible, and not only in relation to the OGP process. They also blew millions of dollars on an unnecessary and undemocratic flag referendum and have failed at every step over the last 9 years to listen to the voices of communities.


The Labour Party has been quick to criticise National for their performance in Open Government Partnership – however, they do not appear to have a public statement on their own Open Government Policy. I received no response to my request for comment on such a policy from their Open Government portfolio holder Clare Curran. It is encouraging that they received a reasonable ranking from TINZ on their answers, however, true participatory politics requires more than just transparency and accountability. It involves real opportunities to engage and influence decisions. It seems Labour is still stuck in last century’s model of politics and has not yet recognised the need to reach out to the masses as the Corbyn movement in the UK Labour Party has done.

Green Party

It is, however, probably not such a surprise to anyone following the issue that the Green Party has the most developed policies on participation. The Green Party website has a clearly public and accessible ‘Open Government and Democracy’ policy statement (Open Government and democracy Policy).

This policy includes an overarching vision around participation: “We are actively engaged in our democracy and are able to meaningfully participate in government decision-making.”

It also includes two directly ‘participation’ focused principles as follows: 8. Active democratic processes require more than periodic elections and stronger mechanisms are needed for the ongoing engagement of informed citizens in the development and enactment of key national and local policies; and
9. The principle of subsidiary will guide the devolution of decision-making so that it takes place as close as possible to the communities more affected by the decisions.

The policy also sets out specific policy points. However, none of the policy points set out are explicitly around participation or divesting of decision-making power to citizens outside of parliament. There is still clearly work to be done with the party to set some achievable goals in this regard.

The Opportunities Party

Despite the TINZ assessment of their knowledge on transparency and accountability, to their credit, TOP is clearly calling for wider participation in politics. Their policy 19 calls for a Democracy Reset. This policy states: “It is our view that the strength of our democracy has been eroded over recent decades. The question now is how to restore full public participation.”

TOP goes on to say: “This is going to take a number of reforms, but the dividend is priceless – a democracy where the people feel they have a real say, where the government serves all citizens, and where intergenerational equity is respected.”

However, based on their current polling, a vote for TOP will likely not help to secure a government with a strong commitment to open government and participatory democracy.

I am not and never have been affiliated with the Greens or any other political party, and I’m not telling you who to vote for. My research and assumptions may be wrong, but my opinion is, if you want a more open and democratic government then Giving the Greens your Party Vote is the safest move. This vote will strategically help ensure Labour and the Greens can form a Government with a stronger democratic and open government focus. The alternative of a National/NZ First or even Labour/NZ First government will simply bring more of the same inaction on this issue we have seen over the past nine years.

2. Strengthen Civil Society Participation In The OGP Process

Decisions we make on Election Day will certainly have an impact on Open Government’s future in New Zealand, however, ultimately we still need a strong civil society movement to ensure citizens are driving this process regardless of the next government.

Any actual progress made on the latest National Action Plan is a testament to the OGP process, which requires real civil society engagement, measurable commitments and appoints an independent reviewer to assess performance. This OGP process enables strong and organised opposition from civil society preventing the government from getting away with their usual sham consultations and spin tactics on the second plan.

The civil society movement centred around the OGP last year also made it clear that the government’s social investment based agenda was not appropriate or welcome in the OGP process. We need to continue to be vigilant to ensure such dystopian elements do not sneak in through the back door of this Open Government Partnership process. Open government is about more than open data and certainly isn’t about increased surveillance or corporate control of our data. It is about democratic transparency and opening up access to decision making to a wide range of people.

However, now is not the time for civil society to relax on this issue. Until we have a clear national vision and a government in New Zealand strongly championing open government, it is important that citizens continue the fight to move it forward in the right directions.

One tangible action we can take is to support or get involved in civil society movements working on this issue. Groups and organisations such as TINZ, Open Source Open Society, Hui E, ECO are all working to advance the cause of open government in New Zealand. We need to give them as much support as possible in their important civil society role in the OGP process and ensure that we all take every opportunity to provide feedback into the process.

3. Adopt The 5 Key Ideas Of The Bridges Both Ways Report

Max Rashbrooke’s Bridges Both Ways: Transforming the Openness of New Zealand Government released in June 2017 is a detailed report outlining ideas for improving democracy in New Zealand. In the report, Rashbrooke proposes key ideas about fixing problems in the current political system. These suggestions cover improving government transparency but more importantly focus heavily on improving public participation in our government. The symbolism of the title refers to the two-way bridge that Rashbrooke proposes is necessary between the public and the decision-makers.

The report proposes five ‘key ideas’ aimed at increasing the openness and participatory nature of government in New Zealand. These practical and achievable solutions are: 1. Crowdsourced bills,
2. Participatory budgeting,
3. A ‘Public Opinion’ Budget,
4. A ‘Kōrero Politics’ Day; and
5. Democratising party funding.

Such innovations could indeed help to get more Kiwis interested and involved again so that democratic participation becomes about more than voting once every few years.

4. Focus On Local Level Politics And Municipalism

Sophie Jerram has proposed that we consider other forms of democracy in New Zealand, namely engaged local politics, currently being called municipalism in Europe. The most outstanding example is the success of this style of politics is Barcelona En Comu and other local direct democracy democracy parties in Spain. Jerram describes Municipalism:
“If you’re not one for party politics, municipalism is attractive—it’s about designing a process of involving all citizens in the self-organising of their communities, towns or cities, not so much about creating new policies and group think from the top down.”

Barcelona En Comu started out as a movement of self-organising groups that came together to contest the local elections, initially under the banner Guanyem Barcelona (We will win Barcelona). They held public meetings in the squares, in the streets, and in all neighborhoods and ultimately swept into power. Barcelona’s current Mayor Ada Colau and many other councilors were members of the Party. The Party has remained true to its original grass-roots, decentralised participatory-democracy principles, however, and as a result is revolutionising the way local government interacts with the city. For a full overview of the movement, see this Guardian piece How to win back the city.

Some local manifestation of this model is entirely possible in New Zealand. Jerram rightly points out that our unique culture already has a precedent for this type of decision-making in Maori Tikanga and Hui politics:
“Imagine regular, official Council meetings in our parks and squares (or vacant sites if the weather is bad) where our communities come to talk about their local needs for, say good local food, or cheaper activities or safer traffic and these were addressed directly by the neighborhood representative? Engaging Maori tikanga would be vital and important- hui are the ideal reference point for the practice of listening hearing each other.”

Lets do this – together!

The Open Government Partnership process is a great tool for member nations to achieve progress in this space as it enables civil society to build a movement, and to strengthen cultural expectations for government transparency. However, we should also be clear that nothing of substance is going to be achieved without constant citizen pressure on governments to do so. Now is the time to ensure that not only are these latest NAP commitments actually put into action, but to start working on ensuring the next plan is created in a far more open and transparent way and that the commitments made move us substantively in the right direction of more openness. In order to achieve this, we as citizens need to continue to build a strong movement calling for politicians from all sides to commit to more ambitious and progressive policy positions on open government.

However, we perhaps also need to start thinking even bigger, and like Barcelona, seize power from the local government level through an uprising of decentralized and direct democracy. Democracy in New Zealand may well be on the brink of another significant upgrade in transparency and openness due to significant advances in technology and growing demand from citizens for true transparency and participation. This could potentially lead to a much fairer and more inclusive society; however, we need to keep the pressure on to ensure this transition is completed in New Zealand. Decisions on how to organize our society ought to be, and will eventually be made by the citizens who themselves hold the ultimate power in any true democracy. We need a new breed of less overtly self-interested politicians willing to get with the programme and enable that transition immediately.

This article was completed thanks to the assistance of crowdfunding received from attendees at the Open Source Open Society Conference 2016 using the participatory budgeting software cobudget.

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