NSW needs more citizen participation

By David Donaldson

September 30, 2015

Elizabeth Tydd

New South Wales is lagging behind other states in ensuring citizens’ rights to participate in government decision making, argues NSW information commissioner Elizabeth Tydd.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd
Elizabeth Tydd

Although there is plenty of good will in the state service, implementation of the right to active engagement and participation in government decision making and service delivery “has arguably remained somewhat dormant” since the introduction of the Government Information (Public Access) Act enshrining that right in 2009.

Speaking to The Mandarin for Right To Know Week, which runs from September 28 to October 4, Tydd explained that upholding that right — as well as the two others in the legislation, namely citizens’ right to obtain information from government, proactively or reactively and the right to hold government to account and expect transparency — was “really meaningful and important work” for the Information and Privacy Commission.

Tydd argues the state has been “slow to realise the full intent” of the Act, and that progress until now has largely focused on the transactional. From the introduction of the Act in the 2009-10 financial year to last financial year, there has been an 18% increase in the number of applications for review to the IPC.

“We also need to recognise that information can transcend state borders.”

But applications to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, “a more formal and costly system of redress”, have increased between 2011-12 and 2014-15 from 40 to 120.

The increase in work for the tribunal shows citizens are making use of their rights, but increasingly opting to bypass IPC review processes, suggesting there are some issues with the current system. The Act, which applies to universities, government agencies and departments, local government and state-owned corporations, is currently under review by the Department of Justice.

The delay in realising the intentions of the legislation has also applied to the IPC itself, with the commission only recently eliminating its backlog of information access cases.

The IPC plans to develop, in consultation with government and citizens, a charter of public participation to outline how agencies should put these principles into action. Similarly to what already occurs in Victoria, the charter will be independently monitored and oversighted by the IPC.

This follows findings by the NSW Customer Service Commissioner in a customer service survey that the state service ranked lowest for customers and businesses alike when it came to demonstrating openness and transparency in decision making and in encouraging public participation in decision making.

Tydd also highlighted “legislative complexity” as presenting a barrier to effective inter-agency information sharing, something that is “somewhat limited in the current NSW environment”.

It’s important to ensure the approach to information management systems — in a broad sense, beyond just data — “is a more contemporary approach that recognises the digital age and ensures properly informed government decision making and responses to citizens,” she thinks.

“We also need to recognise that information can transcend state borders.”

Despite the challenges, Tydd argues “it’s important to mention there is evidence of goodwill to switch on open government in NSW.

“The IPC will be playing a leadership role in harnessing that goodwill and collaborating on the development of a charter of participation, but that must be done in collaboration with NSW citizens. The development of a charter will enable NSW citizens to at last see a realisation of their right to achieve all three precepts of open government,” she says.

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