Open government plan back on track, as officials relax grip

By Harley Dennett

Friday August 5, 2016

Australia’s bid to join the Open Government Partnership — now in its third year of planning — was again put on ice during the political turmoil earlier in the year, but is at last showing signs that the end is in sight.

National membership of the OGP community has minimal entry requirements — Australia’s FOI, budget reporting and election provisions more than suffice — instead the focus is on each nation setting its own commitments. These commitments must be “developed publically and transparently in a spirit of genuine partnership” with its people.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has announced a new timeline to finalise the Australia’s list of commitments by the end of October.

The national action plan must be approved by Cabinet, and compliance will be periodically judged by international observers.

PM&C will continue the consultations with civil society organisations that began before the double dissolution election was flagged. An April workshop in Canberra attended by The Mandarin, various civil society organisations, half a dozen federal departments and their portfolio agencies, and one state information commissioner, developed 14 possible commitments for the NAP. Attendees were critical of the “co-creation” efforts, specifically that the representation at one Canberra-based workshop was insufficient to meet OGP’s expectations of community engagement.

This week, PM&C raised the possibility of an alternative set of commitments being developed in the coming weeks for Cabinet’s consideration, but are still considering how best to proceed.

The Open Government Partnership Network, which represents the civil society organisations participating in the consultations, has pushed for “more time, more scope, more ambition” and described the new timeframe as a positive step. Dissatisfied that the consultation and engagement approach of government fits the definition of partnership, it has advocated for a co-chaired committee of government and non-government representatives to lead the final stages of the plan’s development and its eventual implementation. It is also looking at a co-chaired working group model adopted in the UK.

Peter Timmins, interim convenor of the OGPN steering committee, intends to address a global gathering to discuss the Australian partnership challenge (if the motion is passed). In an email to the network Timmins advised of some evolution in how the government saw the partnership:

“Officials in Canberra seem aware of the need to lift the sights from the narrow micro issues that came from government departments in the earlier phase of development of the plan.

“With voter disillusion and lack of trust a takeaway from the election, our leaders should connect the dots to the OGP which opens the door for ‘commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.’

“We have brought to attention what we saw as a failing in Round 1 of the consultation: that the public service felt it necessary to stay within the bounds of existing policy whereas those outside suggested changes that would involve a shift in policy. With regard to the latter, we have no idea what public servants put to the PM or other ministers and there had been no opportunity to engage at that level, to put the case, and if the PM was inclined to reject some proposals, to hear why.”

Australia was late to express interested in the OGP, relative to its usual partners. New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom are already members and most have moved on to their second and third NAPs.

In 2013, then attorney-general Mark Dreyfus wrote to the OGP expressing interest in Australia becoming a member, but that was halted under his successor George Brandis. When Malcolm Turnbull became leader in 2015, a new expression of interest was made and the responsibility to ensure its completion was moved to PM&C.

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