My personal OGPau submission

I have been fascinated and passionate about good government since I started exploring the role of government in society about 15 years ago. I decided to go work in both the political and public service arenas specifically to get a better understanding of how government and democracy works in Australia and it had been an incredible journey learning a lot, with a lot of good mentors and experiences along the way.

When I learned about the Open Government Partnership I was extremely excited about the opportunity it presented to have genuine public collaboration on the future of open government in Australia, and to collaborate with other governments on important initiatives like transparency, democracy and citizen rights. Once the government gave the go ahead, I felt privileged to be part of kicking the process off, and secure in my confidence in the team left to run the consultation as I left to be on maternity leave (returning to work in 2017). Amelia, Toby and the whole team are doing a great job, as are the various groups and individuals contributing to the consultation. I think it can be very tempting to be cynical about such things but it us so important we take the steering wheel offered, to drive this where we want to go. Otherwise it is a wasted opportunity.

So now, as a citizen who cares about this topic, and completely independently of my work, I’d like to contribute some additional ideas to the Australian OGP consultation and I encourage you all to contribute ideas too. There have already been a lot of great ideas I support, so these are just a few I think deserve a little extra attention. I’ve laid out some problems and then some actions for each problem. I’ve also got a 9 week old baby so this has been a bit tricky to write in between baby duties :) I’m keen to explore these and other ideas in more detail throughout the process but these are just the high level ideas to start.

Problem 1: democratic engagement. I think it is hard for a lot of citizens to engage in the range of activities of our democracy. Voting is usually considered the extent to which the average person considers participating but there are so many ways to be involved in the decisions and actions of governments, which affect us in our every day lives! These actions are about making the business of government easier for the people served  to get involved in.

Action (theme: public participation): Establish a single place to discover all consultations, publications, policies – it is currently difficult for people to contribute meaningfully to government because it is hard to find what is going on, what has already been decided, what the priorities of the government of the day are, and what research has been conducted to date.

Action: (theme: public participation): Establish a participatory budget approach. Each year there should be a way for the public to give ideas and feedback to the budget process, to help identify community priorities and potential savings.

Action: (theme: public participation): Establish a regular Community Estimates session. Senate Estimates is a way for the Senate to hold the government and departments to account however, often the politics of the individuals involved dominates the approach. What if we implemented an opportunity for the public to do the same? There would need to be a rigorous way to collect and prioritise questions from the public that was fair and representative, but it could be an excellent way to provide greater accountability which is not (or should not be) politicised.

Problem 2: analogue government. Because so much of the reporting, information, decisions and outcomes of government are published (or not published) in an analogue format (not digital or machine readable), it is very hard to discover and analyse, and thus very hard to monitor. If government was more digitally accessible, more mashable, then it would be easier to monitor the work of government.

Action: (theme: open data) XML feeds for all parliamentary data including Hansard, comlaw, annual reports, pbs’, MP expenses and declaration of interests in data form with notifications of changes. This would make this important democratic content more accessible, easier to analyse and easier to monitor.

Action: (theme: open data) Publishing of all the federal budget information in data format on budget night, including the tables throughout the budget papers, the data from the Portfolio Budget Statements (PBSs) and anything else of relevance. This would make analysing the budget easier. There have been some efforts in this space but it has not been fully implemented.

Action: (Freedom of Information): Adoption of rightoknow platform for whole of gov with central FOI register and publications, and a central FOI team to work across all departments consistently for responding to requests. Currently doing an FOI request can be tricky to figure out (unless you can find community initiatives like righttoknow which has automated the process externally) and the approach to FOI requests varies quite dramatically across departments. A single official way to submit requests, track them, and see reports published, as well as a single mechanism to respond to requests would be better for the citizen experience and far more efficient for government.

Action: (theme: government integrity): Retrospective open calendars of all Parliamentarians business calendars. Constituents deserve to know how their representatives are using their time and, in particular, who they are meeting with. This helps improve transparency around potential influencers of public policy, and helps encourage Parliamentarians to consider how they spend their time in office.

Problem 3: limits for reporting transparency. A lot of the rules about reporting of expenditure in Australia are better than most other countries in the world however, we can do better. We could lower the thresholds for reporting expenditure for instance, and others have covered expanding the reporting around political donations so I’ll stick to what I know and consider useful from direct experience.

Action: (theme: fiscal transparency): Regular publishing of government expenditure records down to $1000. Currently federal government contracts over $10k are reported in Australia through the AusTender website and ondata.gov.au however, there are a lot of expenses below $10k that arguably would be useful to know. In the UK they introduced expenditure reporting per department monthly at https://data.gov.uk/data/openspending-report/index

Action: (theme: fiscal transparency): A public register of all gov funded major projects (all types) along with status, project manager and regular reporting. This would make it easier to track major projects and to intervene when they are not delivering.

Action: (theme: fiscal transparency): Update of PBS and Annual Report templates for comparative budget and program information with common key performance indicators and reporting for programs and departmental functions. Right now agencies do their reporting in PDF documents that provide no easy way to compare outcomes, programs, expenditure, etc. If common XML templates were used for common reports, comparative assessment would be easier and information about government as a whole much more available for assessment.

Problem 4: stovepipe and siloed government impedes citizen centric service delivery. Right now each agency is motivated to deliver their specific mandate with a limited (and ever restricted) budget and so we end up with systems (human, technology, etc) for service delivery that are siloed from other systems and departments. If departments took a more modular approach, it would be more possible to mash up government data, content and services for dramatically improved service delivery across government, and indeed across different jurisdictions.

Action: (theme: public service delivery): Mandated open Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) for all citizen and business facing services delivered or commissioned by government, to comply to appropriately defined standards and security. This would enable different data, content and services to be mashed up by agencies for better service delivery, but also enables an ecosystem of service delivery beyond government.

Action: (theme: government integrity): a consistent reporting approach and public access to details of outsourced contract work with greater consistency of confidentiality rules in procurement. A lot of work is outsourced by government to third parties. This can be a good way to deliver some things (and there are many arguments as to how much outsourcing is too much) however, it introduces a serious transparency issue when the information about contracted work is unable to be monitored, with the excuse of “commercial in confidence”. All contracts should have minimum reporting requirements and should make publicly available the details of what exactly is contracted, with the exception of contracts with national security where such disclosure creates a significant risk. This would also help in creating a motivation for contractors to deliver on their contractual obligations. Finally, if procurement officers across government had enhanced training to correctly apply the existing confidentiality test from the Commonwealth Procurement Rules, it would be reasonably to expect that there would be less information hidden behind commercial in confidence.

I also wholeheartedly support the recommendations of the Independent Parliamentary Entitlements System Report (https://www.dpmc.gov.au/taskforces/review-parliamentary-entitlements), in particular:

  • Recommendation 24: publish all key documents online;
  • Recommendation 25: more frequent reporting (of work expenses of parliamentarians and their staff) on data.gov.au as a dataset;
  • Recommendation 26: improved travel reporting by Parliamentarians.

I hope this feedback is useful and I look forward to participating in the rest of the consultation. I’m adding the ideas to the ogpau wiki and look forward to feedback and discussion. Just to be crystal clear, these are my own thoughts, based on my own passion and experience, and is not in any way representative of my employer or the government. I have nothing to do with the running of the consultation now and expect my ideas to hold no more weight than the ideas of any other contributor.

Good luck everyone, let’s do this :)

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6 Responses to My personal OGPau submission

  1. itgrrl says:

    A lot of good suggestions here, Pia.

  2. Thanks for a good list Pia.

    One thing is that I wonder about the ‘Data.gov’ one central repository idea. I think it makes sense in principle, but I don’t think it’s necessarily such a big deal. Also it’s a wheel that keeps getting reinvented.

    You call for the establishment of “a single place to discover all consultations, publications, policies. I subscribe to https://consultation.business.gov.au/Consultation/ and get lots of alerts etc. so the service exists. Should it really be expanded to all “publications” or all “policies”? Isn’t this a sophisticated interface and UX problem rather than something that can be solved with a ‘one size fits all’ approach? (That’s a genuine question by the way, not a rhetorical one. I don’t know the answer.)

    Also, I think a lot of what you’ve got here offers a good high level summary of problems and possible solutions. But often governments can deliver on the letter of such high level statements without delivering on the spirit or the substance.

    So I’d like to see the OG community delineate even in quite substantial detail specific things that we’d like to see opened up. That is for instance I’d like to see the ASPC’s ‘State of the Service’ data opened up. It’s already open, but not in a form that could cause any agency any embarrassment – because embarrassment isn’t the kind of thing that should disturb the minds of sound chaps.

    A lot of where the agenda is falling down is in the transmission of the spirit to the letter. Thus the Treasury can point to the way in which it’s published details about its models. But it’s not really released them in a form that enables them to be easily used – or in your terms it’s opened up in an analogue fashion documenting its assumptions, but not in a digital way – allowing full machine interoperability – so anyone can download the spreadsheet and re-populate the models with their own assumptions, and/or parameters.

    • pipka says:

      Thanks for that Nicholas. OK, a couple of things:

      1) data.gov.au isn’t just a single central repository. Where agencies can host their data appropriately and link it, that is fine, but it should meet a minimum technical standard wherever it is hosted :) The wheel doesn’t need to keep being reinvented in Australia, it is being iterated according to need but what we rebooted a few years ago is going well :)

      2) A single place to discover could be a UX thing, or a Solr search interface, or any number of things which doesn’t need to be a single platform. I do think we need to be able to find all government publications so we know what is being published, can readily access government reports and analysis for ease of reuse or review, and to build on the back of government reports rather than reinventing them over and over. As for policies, what are the policies of the government of the day? It is very hard to know a complete list. If it was the practice that this was kept somewhere, along with a list of programs and outcomes across departments, then it makes it easier to understand, analyse and monitor the work of government. The link you provided is a list of business consultations, and there is a similar list held on australia.gov.au of public facing consultation, but neither are complete because departments launch consultations in all manner of places without anything central definitively knowing about it.

      I totally agree about the APSC State of the Service data. At an agency level would be good but obviously not a unit level, as that would be a privacy issue. Agree also about Treasury models. It’s be great if they were published and reusable! The trick here is moving from analogue to digital government. Moving towards reusable components. Thanks for the food for thought! Insightful as always.

      Cheers,
      Pia

  3. One other thing I forgot :(

    I foreshadowed a bunch of issues in this post

    http://clubtroppo.com.au/2016/01/03/if-i-had-a-hammer-or-is-change-we-cant-theorise-change-we-can-believe-in-part-two/

    which I’d like to see more of in our OGP representations.

  4. Thanks for your reply Pia.

  5. Excellent suggestions. I am picking up some of these ideas for the Productivity Commission Data Use and Availability Inquiry submission.

    http://www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/current/data-access

    I think the possibilities of CKAN repositories, to federate agency data, are maybe underutilized. However, now that G-NAF and Administrative Boundaries are publicly open there is a lot more opportunity to cross-link and index items from registries and other sources. That is where I see a lot of private sector opportunity.

    The ideas for making searchable, indexable troves of public data have been shown to have considerable potential through the work of OpenCorporates.com in the UK already and their new project http://opengazettes.com/ After Panama Papers, I anticipate a much higher level of interest from the media/research agencies in the digital humanities project of properly indexing the public record.

    Perhaps “little projects” that pick off elements of this (like digital hansard) are the way forward. For instance, the Canadian hansard (which is dual published in French and English) proved very useful for developing statistical machine translation. Taking the electoral focus of budget spending and correlating that to past voting preferences and margins would give a great “Pork Map” for the nation on wasted resources.

    Thanks for posting these ideas and keep up the great work!

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