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« Open Government Partnership: Are we on the right track? | Main | OGP consultations underway »

Open Government Partnership report

By Steven | February 20, 2016

As many of you will know, in 2013 the NZ government signed up to the Open Government Partnership, a group of countries and civil society organisations that promises to take steps to improve transparency, accountability and public participation in governments. Governments have to submit two-yearly action plans, which are supposed to be “co-created” with the public and interested civil society organisations. Governments then get assessed on the adequacy of their consultation, the quality of their action plans, and how much progress they have made.

Who does that assessment? In NZ’s case, that would be me. I have been engaged by the Open Government Partnership’s IRM (Independent Reporting Mechanism) to study our action plan, interview officials nad interested observers, and draw up a report evaluating the government’s performance.

That report has now been released for public comment. You can find it here: http://www.opengovpartnership.org/sites/default/files/New%20Zealand_IRM%20Report_public%20comment.pdf

The next bit of the blog is my summary of the report and some impressions about the process and the content. I have written it; it is not the work of the Independent Reporting Mechanism.

The report is not flattering for the government. For a start, our action plan cannot sensibly be described as a “co-creation” with civil society. The government decided very early on what it wanted to put in it, and then conducted a very limited consultation exercise. For instance, it never even put out a press release about consultation. It even breached its obligation to publish, in advance, a list of its consultation activities. (In comments on the report, the government said I’d got this wrong. It pointed to a list it had posted on the State Services Commission website. That list was posted after all the consultation had taken place.)

Those the government consulted criticised the government for its rushed and apparently pre-determined process, but were prepared to put forward a range of ideas about what should be in the action plan. Those ideas were very largely ignored.

The government said it did not have much time, since the action plan was due in June 2014. True. But it never actually released its action plan until October. (Nevertheless, it still dated it “July”).

The govenrment was then supposed to evaluate its own performance. Its obligation was to prepare a self-assessment of its first year under the action plan, then get public feedback and finalise and publish the self-assessment by September. It published a draft in October. It released its final self-assessment nearly two weeks ago, on 9 February. (It was dated January).

That self-assessment described the government’s action plan as “ambitious”. Was it? The people I interviewed didn’t think so. We made only four commitments, one of the fewest of any participating country. That doesn’t necessarily mean ours was bad: they could have been ground-breaking commitments. Were they? Not really. Our action plan consisted of four government initiatives that were already happening. That is certainly allowed under the OGP framework. But the point of the OGP is that governments are supposed to promise to make improvements over current practices. So the initiatives needed to be improved or speeded up to increase the degree of transparency, accountability and particiption. I could find very little evidence that we did any of that. It was simply business as usual. It is hard to believe that we have done anything much differently at all as a result of joining OGP.

Some point out that our government is already much more transparent and accountable that most other governments in the world. That is certainly true. But there is always room for improvement, and OGP requires assessing our commitments against our current baseline. We are supposed to be able to demonstrate positive progress.

Perhaps conscious of this, our action plan describes itself as a living document. It says it will be updated, in consultation with stakeholders, during its two-year course. In fact, this never happened. It was never updated. And, during the first year anyway, there was not even any consultation. The government did set up a Stakeholder Advisory Group to provide it with advice. But that group is not well-resourced and many of its own members would say that it is no substitute for proper public consultation.

What is in the action plan? The four commitments relate to:

(1) the government’s six-monthly reports under its Better Public Services programme - that is, public reporting about government progress against a range of ten social policies concerning things like crime, welfare, education, and digitising government services. The programme may well be laudable. Its central thrust - reporting against publicly set targets - clearly supports government accountability. But it’s not primarily about open government. As an OGP commitment, it’s not really very ambitious. And the OGP did not prompt any change in the way it was delivered.

(2) the government’s ICT Strategy and Action Plan. This is extremely wide-ranging, and is about transforming government services in the new digital environment. It was originally prepared in 2013. The action plan was updated in 2014 (this was part of our OGP commitment but would have happened anyway). The Strategy was updated in 2015 (this wasn’t part of our OGP commitment). The part of this commitment most relevant to OGP is the open data programme, which looks to “unlock” government data for productive re-use. Most people I spoke with said this was a laudable goal, and there had been some real improvements, such as the government portals at www.govt.nz and www.data.govt.nz. But they said it was patchy and often not well-designed. There wasn’t enormous progress in the year after the action plan, which didn’t really seem to have any effect on the government’s ICT activities.

(3) a promise to consult and report back to Ministers about Transparency International’s National Integrity Systems report, a large and sweeping analysis of the pillars of democracy containing a series of recommendations for reform. Its report was to be in February 2015. You might notice that this is not much to promise. The government was looking at it anyway. The government did meet regularly with TINZ and discuss which recommendations were most signficant. It did prepare a report for the Minister by February, but it did little more that summarise the TINZ recommendations. It promised another report later that might look at taking action on some of them. But the thrust of its self-assessment was that it was already taking strong action in relation to most of the recommendations, something that TINZ disagreed with, and which my analysis in the report suggests is not borne out.

(4) Review the Kia Tutahi Accord in 2015. Again, not particularly ambitious. The accord is a sort of pact between the government and community organisations promising to engage over the development of policies. The review has not been made available to me and may not even be complete yet. It seems to constitute little more than the conduct and analysis of two surveys, laudable in themselves. In the action plan, the government said it would be conducting research on international best practice for community consultation. It does not seem to have done that yet, and now it seems that it is not part of the promised review.

I interviewed officials and sent long lists of questions to the government, pressing them to identify ways in which the components of our action plan have made a real difference to the level of transparency, accountability and public participation. I got little that was concrete in response. Officials believe that the initiatives are good policy, that they reflect values of transparency and the like, and that the production of a range of plans, reviews, refreshes, and taskforces constitutes concrete progress. But OGP focuses on measurable progress that affects the public.

The next action plan is due in June this year. The report contains recommendations for improving the process and content. Here’s quote from the IRM press release:

Echoing the views of most of those interviewed, the report called on the government to increase public consultation and raise the ambition level in the next action plan, which is due in June. This should involve consultation that is earlier, better designed and resourced, and more responsive to stakeholder priorities. The report IRM suggested that the next plan should include bold and potentially transformative commitments such as:

·        Reform of official freedom of information laws;

·        Creation of public consultation guidelines for new bills, regulations and policies

·        Regular, standardized, technically independent “state of the nation” reporting on social policy and the environment;

·        A clear cross-government policy to allow public servants and those receiving public funding to speak out on significant public issues without facing any form of retaliation

·        Political party funding reform to increase transparency around donations and Parliamentary revenues.

The IRM invites all interested stakeholders to make public comments on the report at www.opengovpartnership.org/country/new-zealand/irm or via email at irm@opengovpartnership.org. Comments received will be used to prepare the final version of the report and published alongside it. The public comment period will be open until the end of the day Thursday, 2 March 2016 EST.

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