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What took us so long?

By Steven | September 27, 2013

Great news that NZ has decided to join up to the Open Government Partnership, an international effort to increase government transparency.

It’s a bit odd that our PM made this announcement as a sort of a postscript to a press release about his chummy meeting with UK PM David Cameron – and essentially described our decision to join the Open Government Partnership as a favour to the UK:

At the request of the UK, New Zealand will formally express its intention to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP) later this year.

The UK is the current lead co‑chair of the OGP – a grouping of 58 countries and nine civil society organisations committed to transparent and open government, combatting corruption, and harnessing new technologies.

“The OGP’s goals are consistent with New Zealand values and with our goals for international economic and social development, and I was pleased the UK invited us to join,” Mr Key says.

Yes, thanks UK, for inviting us to join. Except that… we were invited to join a couple of years ago. We’ve been faffing around since then. 54 countries have already joined. It’s not as if it’s exclusive.

Why the delay? After all, our country actually does have a very good track record on transparency. And the National government has already issued its Declaration on Open and Transparent Government, which makes nice noises about actively releasing high value public data.

I suspect it has something to do with the obligations entailed. We’ll have to develop an action plan in consultation with civil society and then assess ourselves against our commitments. Then we’ll have to open ourselves to an independent assessment of our progress. This might involve some cost, and some potential… increases in transparency. I wonder which the government regards as the more problematic?

Might our reluctance also have something to do with embarassment at the government’s recent insulting rejection of nearly all of the Law Commission’s generally very sensible recommendations for improving our official information framework, including subjecting Parliament to the Official Information Act?

Here’s the analysis from MFAT (credit to an OIA request by Andrew Eccleston):

The question of New Zealand’s membership of the OGP is one of weighing the costs of engagement against the risks of domestic and international criticism should New Zealand’s absence become glaring.

Sigh. Is it too much to ask that our officials also factor in the possibility that greater transparency is a good thing for the country all by itself? That it might lead to greater accountability? Maybe even greater public participation? And more effective government? And at least a greater sense of public trust and confidence in government? That our existing law and culture around transparency are not perfect? That we might have something to learn from the sharing of experiences, ideas and evidence of best practices that  the OGP facilitates?

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