Turnbull signs Australia up to Open Government Partnership

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday November 18, 2015

The federal government has signed Australia up to the international Open Government Partnership, and it wants ambitious ideas on how to improve public services and manage public resources more effectively, while improving transparency and accountability.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has opened a consultation process to inform a national action plan, co-ordinated by PM&C’s Pia Waugh, which it will lodge with the international partnership’s steering committee by next July.

Pia Waugh. Image: Gavin Tapp
Pia Waugh

While critics will undoubtedly line up to point out examples of the federal government not being open, accountable and responsive enough for their liking, the partnership is about fostering improvement in those areas by supporting “domestic reformers” who are strongly committed to those values. Waugh, an open government advocate who was initially recruited by the Department of Finance and is now with PM&C, is a prime example.

More optimist than critic, Waugh was well known prior to becoming a public servant for her views on how digital technology could improve government and the democratic process by empowering citizens in ways that were less feasible in times past. She argues in a blog post that by world standards Australia is already “one of the most transparent, accountable and engaged democracies” around.

“However, there is always more that can be done,” she adds, explaining Australia’s open government action plan needs “ambitious actions” to support two of the five OGP goals known as “grand challenges”: improving public services and better managing public resources. She invites “the public, civil society, and the private sector” to contribute ideas.

The choice of those two of the five challenges has already been questioned by Peter Timmins, another open government advocate from outside the public service who is critical of steps away from independent integrity mechanisms and freedom of information.

“Many outside government might ponder the ‘envisioning’ without outside input that led to this choice,” Timmins comments on a more detailed post about the consultation process. While welcoming the move to join the OGP and applauding the consultation work, he points out the government is not allowing the public to have a say on which grand challenges to approach first.

The remaining three are:

  • Increasing Public Integrity — measures that address corruption and public ethics, access to information, campaign finance reform, and media and civil society freedom;
  • Creating Safer Communities — measures that address public safety, the security sector, disaster and crisis response, and environmental threats; and
  • Increasing Corporate Accountability — measures that address corporate responsibility on issues such as the environment, anti-corruption, consumer protection, and community engagement.

The two-year plan has to be formulated publicly and transparently and must include a vision of the future, commitments for how to get there and ways to measure success, as well as a potted history and current status of open government in Australia and a framework for how people inside government can work together better with the rest of society.

There are now some 69 countries involved in the partnership, which began in 2011, and some like the United States and the Philippines now into their third action plan cycle. It held a summit in Mexico last month where its second annual awards were presented with the 2015 theme of improving public services through open government.

Update: In a response to Peter Timmins, Waugh says the key themes for the second national action plan will be open for consultation and welcomes his other suggestion to establish an external stakeholder advisory group as other OGP member nations have done.

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