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Lack of Public Consultation in Opening Up the Government

New Open Government Partnership Report on New Zealand Finds Lack of Public Consultation and Ambition in Opening Up the Government

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND- Today the Open Government Partnership (OGP) released its first report on New Zealand’s progress towards fulfilling its international commitments to transparency, accountability and participation.

OGP is a partnership of 69 governments and hundreds of civil society organizations working to make government more accountable to their citizens. At the core of OGP are national action plans which are composed of government commitments to improve transparency, open up decision-making, and make officials answerable to the public. In order to monitor progress and encourage continued momentum on the two year National Action plans, OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) team publishes annual reports that provide an assessment of countries’ progress in successfully implementing their commitments. Reports are carried out for each country by a national of that country. In New Zealand, Steven Price, Wellington barrister and adjunct lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, was the IRM researcher.

One year into implementation, the New Zealand IRM report finds that the government’s action plan largely consists of programmes that were already underway, and were not primarily designed to improve open government practice. While OGP encourages governments to develop commitments around already existing programmes, under OGP rules the programmes are supposed to stretch practice and set more ambitious targets. The report found little evidence that this had happened.

A director of Transparency International New Zealand told the IRM researcher IRM that New Zealand’s action plan contains “low-hanging fruit – in fact it has already fallen off the tree”. By contrast, the action plan does not address any of the problems with official information laws identified by the Law Commission and very often raised by those interviewed for the report. The next action plan would be a good place to tackle these and other freedom of information issues currently causing controversy: the practice of charging for official information requests, the operational problems highlighted by the Ombudsman’s office, or last year’s High Court ruling that the government’s response to requests for information about the Trans Pacific Partnership was unlawful.

Furthermore, OGP requires that action plans be jointly created by government and civil society. However, the report also found that the public consultation leading up to the action plan was very limited, and that most of the feedback received was ignored. Many people interviewed for the report described it as a “box-ticking” exercise.

Echoing the views of most of those interviewed, the report called on the government to increase public consultation and raise the ambition level in the next action plan, which is due in June. This should involve consultation that is earlier, better designed and resourced, and more responsive to stakeholder priorities. The report IRM suggested that the next plan should include bold and potentially transformative commitments such as:

• Reform of official freedom of information laws;

• Creation of public consultation guidelines for new bills, regulations and policies;

• Regular, standardized, technically independent “state of the nation” reporting on social policy and the environment;

• A clear cross-government policy to allow public servants and those receiving public funding to speak out on significant public issues without facing any form of retaliation

• Political party funding reform to increase transparency around donations and Parliamentary revenues.

The IRM invites all interested stakeholders to make public comments on the report atwww.opengovpartnership.org/country/new-zealand/irm or via email atirm@opengovpartnership.org. Comments received will be used to prepare the final version of the report and published alongside it. The public comment period will be open until the end of the day Thursday, 2 March 2016 EST.


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