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/
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/
- 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 🙂