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Document dump: online annual reports good, open data better

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This year’s barrage of public sector annual reports is at an end. Hundreds of mainly unread hard copies sit on shelves in offices and libraries, an enduring historical record produced through countless hours of work by a small army of public servants, from a small forest of trees.

They range in size from the tiny four-page booklet that is the Office of the Aged Care Pricing Commissioner’s first effort, to the mighty tome that details a year in the life of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Scott Morrison’s department is defending its title — a gold in the 2012-13 IPAA Annual Report Awards.

Those awards illustrate the growing divergence between paper and online versions. While the DIBP book took out last year’s hard copy award, its online version shared silver with Foreign Affairs and Trade; its hard copy didn’t even rate a “highly commended”. The judges felt no large or medium non-corporate federal agency’s online report met the gold standard. Among the smaller non-corporate agencies, the Air Transport Safety Bureau was highly commended for its online effort, but no bronze, silver or gold was given out.

The advantages of digital reports are obvious to all, and with initiatives like the transition to digital record-keeping, the shift to an increasingly pro-disclosure culture and the advance of open data, the printed annual report is surely not long for this world.

Expectations for transparency, accountability and the accessibility of government information are rapidly increasing, while the tradition of documents being literally tabled in a house of parliament, some of those being “ordered to be printed” and then added to the parliamentary papers, is rapidly becoming an expensive anachronism.

“The job of a good government writer is to make complex ideas accessible.”

To professional writer Chas Savage, managing director of Canberra-based communications consultancy Ethos CRS, moving towards a day when printed annual reports can be done away with “makes very good sense”.

“Certainly in the short term, I suspect paper will go,” Savage told The Mandarin. He sees the emerging use of HTML — basically turning the annual report into a web page — as the way all government reports will eventually go, with increasing use of dynamic and interactive infographics. As Savage put it: “The job of a good government writer is to make complex ideas accessible.”

The judging notes from this year’s IPAA Annual Report Awards also provide a snapshot of how far the ability to leverage the vast potential of digital reporting had advanced at about mid-2013, at least in the Commonwealth and ACT governments. In the short term, there is still work to be done to improve the presentation of annual reports in digital form. The judges noted that:

“Given the increased reliance on digital technologies by modern society generally, agencies should take advantage of the full capabilities of the technologies available to enhance their online annual reports in a more systematic way.”

But a more profound change to government reporting awaits a little further down the track. “All of a sudden, the information that’s generated and printed as a one-off for an annual report can be accessed and manipulated almost instantaneously — if the linkages to databases are good enough,” said Savage.

“So, instead of an annual report, there is a conceivable future in which the staffing levels or the program funds or the expenditure position of a particular agency at a particular time is almost automatically generated.”

Can we automate annual reports?

It is not difficult to imagine it becoming much easier for annual report teams to pull together the information they need through automated systems. And, one day, for the parliamentarians, journalists, and anyone else interested in what annual reports contain to draw the data they need themselves, when they need it.

In Savage’s view, “whether or not that immediacy gives an accurate picture is another thing altogether”.

“Over the lifecycle of a program, you can have an enormous amount of money coming in, sitting there, sitting there, and then it being spent in a rush because the program planning stage is over and all of a sudden we’ve got the expenditure phase,” he pointed out. “Sometimes, too much data is simply too much data.”

At the 2013 Annual Report Awards, information commissioner John McMillan gave a thought-provoking speech tracing the gradual change from “a tradition of secrecy, a presumption of confidentiality, and the absolute discretion of government to decide what information to release” to the age of open data.

Annual reports, he pointed out, are understandably “perfected publications” because public access to government information is considered risky. “This cultural attitude is regarded by some as a significant impediment to an open data culture,” he added. “Preparing faultless data may mean it is never released.”

McMillan also noted the large amount of data assembled for annual reports could be of great value and put to a multitude of different uses, if made public. But, he added:

“Making raw or unstructured data publicly accessible, downloadable and useable on open licensing terms raises difficult questions. What if people misconstrue the data or undermine the purpose for which it was collected? Will those who contributed the data object or refuse to supply it [if it] is made generally available? Is it fair that data collected by government at great expense can support a commercial profit-making enterprise that contributed nothing to the collection process?”

McMillan’s role itself embodies the growing view that open access to public sector information must be the “default position” of government. The current government does not seem to support such an idea as wholeheartedly as the last, and indeed wants to abolish the Office of the Information Commissioner.

But surely, in future, there will be a better way to provide transparency and accountability than a yearly onslaught of cheery, upbeat annual reports from hundreds of publicly funded bodies, glossing over the mistakes and revelling in their achievements and, for the rest of the year, maintaining a tight grip on government information for fear of what might happen.

The OAIC’s days may be numbered, but in its non-binding Principles on open public sector information, we find the way forward succinctly stated:

“Information held by Australian Government agencies is a valuable national resource. If there is no legal need to protect the information it should be open to public access. Information publication enhances public access. Agencies should use information technology to disseminate public sector information, applying a presumption of openness and adopting a proactive publication stance.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.