Victoria’s treasure trove ‘largely inaccessible and underused’

By David Donaldson

Friday January 22, 2016

An auditor’s report has highlighted the importance of strong leadership at the centre in pushing change across the public service — and what can happen when it disappears.

Despite Victoria’s official commitment to making more public sector information available for nearly six years now, implementation is lagging and patchy thanks to a lack of whole-of-government direction, argues the Victorian Auditor General’s Office.

The audit of three agencies found that they were “not providing the public with the full and open access to the information to which they are entitled”, adding that the lack of central direction meant this problem was probably common across the VPS.

The drive for freely available “public sector information” means not just what is normally referred to as “open data” — datasets and databases — but unstructured information such as government records, emails, reports, briefings, photographs and so on.

Because Victoria has delayed so long, it’s not even a matter of simply opening the vaults — agencies first need to catalogue the data in their possession.

Acting auditor-general Peter Frost said that while there were some areas of progress, “the foundation of comprehensive and sound information management (IM) practices have been neglected. This is crucial because agencies need to first understand and properly manage the information they hold before they can effectively facilitate public access.”

Frost blamed the shortcoming on inadequate implementation of the government’s prior commitments and a lack of central drive:

“Critical to explaining this outcome is the partial and compromised implementation of the IM framework government committed to in early 2010 and the subsequent ineffective whole-of-government leadership and governance of information management. As a consequence access to PSI [public sector information] has not significantly improved, falling well short of government’s original intentions.”

The Victorian government’s 2010 plan to make public sector information freely available “provided a solid foundation”, the auditor thinks, but a change of approach in 2012 “excluding the goals of increased transparency and accountability and focusing on innovation, greater productivity and improved service delivery” by “releasing only datasets, rather than all PSI as intended” have been “critical in shaping the failure to establish an ‘open by default’ approach”.

The Department of Treasury and Finance, which informed the government of this change in 2012, “did not adequately explain the reasons for this change or the clear risks this created for meeting the goals and existing legislative requirements of providing open access to PSI”, says VAGO.

According to the report, “whole-of-government leadership and oversight have been inadequate for developing and implementing a framework to effectively provide public access to PSI” because:

  • a single point of accountability for the intended framework was not maintained — IM oversight and leadership had been removed;
  • parts of the intended framework essential for achieving open access — such as developing and implementing systematic and consistent practices for categorising, storing and managing PSI — were left without authorisation and oversight;
  • advocacy efforts of CIOC [the Victorian Government Chief Information Officers’ Council] to promote improved IM in a small number of agencies lacked authority and were ineffective in driving the necessary changes;
  • the implementation of just a portion of the government’s commitment meant that only some of the components needed to provide open access have been progressed and reported on.

VAGO praised the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning for its publicly available spatial datasets — data that identifies the geographic location, size and shape of objects on planet Earth, which is usually stored as coordinates and topology. It noted, however, that the department’s readiness to release the rest of its information was relatively poor and “lacks even the foundational governance and oversight requirements needed to ensure effective public access to more than just its spatial data”.

While no agency has reached “maturity” in providing access to its information, the auditor said he can see the potential for the Department of Health and Human Services and the State Revenue Office “to reach maturity in the short term”. DHHS is “close” to publishing its newly created information asset register, though progress has been slowed by the machinery of government changes implemented after the 2014 election:

“DHHS is ‘progressing’ to better practice, with strong IM governance structures, clear senior level support and a comprehensive IM strategy that is integrated with its corporate objectives and planning. However, it has experienced repeated delays in implementing many of its improvement initiatives due to machinery-of-government changes, the Sustainable Government Initiative — which aimed to reduce the number of public sector staff across all departments — and more recently, the need to incorporate the former Department of Human Services’ information holdings, which were substantially less mature. This means that many of these initiatives have only just commenced or are in their early stages, and DHHS needs to maintain its current momentum to achieve a fully mature IM environment.”

The auditor is nonetheless positive about the likelihood of action, noting the current government’s enthusiasm:

“The current government’s policy platform is strongly aligned with using PSI more effectively to deliver economic growth, improved services and greater transparency. This is evident in the appointment of a Special Minister of State to oversee government transparency, integrity, accountability and public sector administration and reform.”

Greater public access to government information is expected to create several benefits, including:

  • stimulating economic activity through new, innovative services;
  • increasing productivity through better decision-making;
  • improving research outcomes;
  • delivering services more effectively and efficiently.

The auditor argued that realising “these significant and widely acknowledged benefits requires strong whole-of-government leadership to help public sector agencies reshape and transform their practices. Unless public sector agencies effectively manage the PSI they hold and create comprehensive directories to allow the public to search for and obtain it, this resource will remain largely inaccessible and underused.”

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