Although the federal government might not consider a pandemic to be the best time to consult with the public on legislation establishing a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, there is one public consultation occurring now that might have the potential to transform transparency and accountability of government.
The Australian Open Government Partnership (OGP) Forum is currently consulting on draft commitments for Australia’s third national action plan. You may not have heard of the Open Government Partnership. Certainly, it is hard to find mention of Australia’s involvement by any government minister since the Turnbull government recommitted Australia to the partnership and produced the first national action plan in November 2016.
That first plan included a commitment to review the national integrity framework, including the jurisdiction and capacities of key anti-corruption bodies, to “strengthen Australia’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to corruption in the public sector”. According to the government’s dashboard reporting on progress to date, that commitment remains ‘delayed’.
The second national action plan, released in October 2018, also included a commitment to strengthen the national anti-corruption framework, continuing the then on-going review and responding to the report of the Senate Select Committee on a National Integrity Commission. Again, that commitment remains ‘delayed’.
The first action plan included ensuring that Australia’s information access laws, policies and practices are modern and appropriate for the digital information age. Recommendations following a two-day ‘policy jam’ were put to government in December 2017, and then again in March 2018. We do not know what those recommendations are. The still-recent Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, itself the subject of its own commitment in National Action Plan 2 (NAP2), repeated the calls for “a review of privacy, FOI and record-keeping arrangements to ensure that they are fit for the digital age” (recommendation 8).
Other commitments have similarly highlighted important areas of reform without making a significant impact. Steps to improve the discoverability and accessibility of government grants have not prevented concerns arising over grants made under the Community Sport Infrastructure Program, the so-called sports rorts affair. Transparency International Australia’s Exporting Corruption report suggests that Australia needs to do more to tackle foreign bribery despite that being the subject matter of a first action plan commitment to combat corporate crime.
The Open Government Partnership is not intended to be a ranking exercise between countries, but a process in which each government gradually ratchets up reform. Its aim is to encourage governments to be “sustainably more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of governance and government services”.
As part of that process, the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) reports on the design and implementation of the national action plans, commenting on the nature and scope of the commitments and stages of completion. That is where I come in. As the independent Research Monitor for Australia as part of the international Open Government Partnership, I have just released a draft report on the design of NAP2, which is currently open for public comment.
I have highlighted the limited ambition of many of Australia’s commitments to date. While they might concern important areas of government transparency and accountability, the commitments have not actually committed to much in the way of substantive reform. Only two of the eight commitments in the current action plan were assessed as having the potential for more than a minor impact. Relevance to open government might hinge on some largely unspecified form of public consultation, recommendations to government that follow may not be made public, and even if they are adopted could just lead to further review.
Other recommendations in my IRM reports have included developing a coherent whole-of-government approach to open government including reporting on consistency of proposed major government reforms with open government values and independent evaluation of their implementation.
But the strongest recommendation in my reports is to increase public commitment to open government at the highest levels of government. The involvement of government ministers, in both individual initiatives and the OGP process itself, would draw more attention to the process and encourage involvement of a broader and more diverse range of voices in the reform process. More importantly, it would increase the accountability of government to their commitment to open government generally.
The response to the pandemic has resulted in an increase in public trust in government. But the pandemic has also brought new challenges to transparency and accountability, including the operation of the national cabinet and role of significant government advisory bodies including the COVID-19 coordination commission. Any increase in trust in government may be short-lived without an increased commitment to open government reform.
Trust is hard-earned. It involves vulnerability and choice – even though we may be subject to harm, we choose to trust anyway – on both sides. To earn our trust our government institutions need to be willing to expose themselves to criticism when they have a choice, or a reason, not to. All levels of government need to commit to a neutral, independent, public and reasoned process of scrutiny, especially to the regulation of transparency and accountability of government itself. That would be ambitious but, in my view, potentially transformative of open government.