Crunch time for Australia’s open government action plan

By Stephen Easton

Monday September 26, 2016

A draft national action plan that will articulate how the Australian government promises to promote open government should finally emerge in the next couple of weeks, ahead of a very tight public consultation period.

The finished draft is set to go to Cabinet for consideration in mid to late October, after the eclectic group that has been working on it holds a final workshop on October 7 to discuss feedback, confirm the draft text and note any dissenting views or areas of contention.

Such a plan — “developed publically and transparently in a spirit of genuine partnership” with the public — is a key condition of Australia joining the worldwide Open Government Partnership. It needs to be finalised, signed off by government and submitted to the OGP by November 1.

According to one member of the working group: “PM&C assure us there will be adequate time for public input on the draft plan before it is finalised.”

If the national action plan emerges this week or next, as expected, it will be a long time coming. After the government committed to join the OGP last year, there was hope within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet that the finalised set of commitments could be launched publicly in July.

The double dissolution of federal Parliament and the long caretaker period that followed put paid to that original schedule and it was not until the start of this month that an interim working group was established to come up with the draft was able to hold its first meeting.

The Mandarin understands some members of the working group expected the draft would come out soon after their most recent meeting on September 19, where tricky proposals like freedom-of-information reform and a stronger federal integrity system that holds political parties up to greater scrutiny were on the table.

Minutes of that meeting are yet to be uploaded to the website set up by PM&C as a focal point for all who wish to contribute to the process — but previous minutes demonstrate progress has been made and suggest a plan of some sort is not far off.

Ahead of the draft, a set of six “potential commitments” emerged on September 13. They indicate that in its first open government plan, the Commonwealth might pledge to:

  • Work towards compliance with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
  • Assess Australia’s compliance with the Open Contracting Data Standard.
  • Explore options for a beneficial ownership register for companies.
  • Improve whistle-blowers protections in the corporate sector, noting the government’s commitment to improve protections for whistle-blowers who report tax misconduct to the Australian Taxation Office.
  • Establish metrics to assess public utilisation of information access rights.
  • Improve availability and use of public data, including identifying and releasing high value datasets to enable data-driven innovation, building public data infrastructure, and building and maintaining public trust on data sharing.

Sustainable development, FOI reform and federal ICAC

Members of the working group were also due to see draft text on a range of topics that have come up, but have not yet reached consensus to proceed as a commitment.

On that list for further discussion is the simple idea that the Australian government should commit to make its information easier to find and access. And the suggestion that freedom-of-information legislation and government information management policies need to be reviewed and modernised.

More support to government agencies in the digital transformation of high-volume public services is also on this list of extra topics, along with a suggestion to “improve public participation and engagement in Commonwealth policy development and decision making” and the idea of having a permanent mechanism for OGP consultation as the federal government puts the forthcoming plan into action.

Then there are the topics that individual group members were going to bring up again at the last meeting, but seem to have achieved even less support on the whole.

Monash University associate professor of management and former Victorian MP Ken Coghill has proposed a federal integrity upgrade as a way to demonstrate Australia’s newfound commitment to open government. The public sector governance and accountability expert brought along to the first meeting:

“… a proposal for enhancement of the ‘national integrity system’, including matters such as an upgrade of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity into an Australian Integrity Commission, bringing the regulation of political campaign funding up to international better practice, and supporting integrity reforms by the Houses of Parliament.”

At the second meeting, Coghill outlined potential political campaign financing reform and greater scrutiny of political parties, and was to bring along more information about the gaps in the current system to support his proposal on September 19.

Along with advocating within the group for FOI reform, transparency advocate and OGP Civil Society Network convenor Peter Timmins also suggested linking Australia’s OGP action plan to our achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals — on which we are ranked 20th in the world and do particularly badly when it comes to climate change and the environment.

The incoming joint chairs of the Open Government Partnership recently announced three core priorities for 2016-17: climate change and sustainable development; transparency, integrity and anti-corruption; and building digital commons.

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