James Riley
October 12, 2015

Turnbull reignites stalled OGP bid

Turnbull reignites stalled OGP bid

George Brandis: About to get more enthusiastic about the Open Government Partnership

Having been quietly shelved two years ago, Australia’s plans to join the multilateral Open Government Partnership are being dusted off by Malcolm Turnbull and an announcement to formally sign-on is expected within weeks.

Prime Minister Turnbull is understood to have considered a proposal last week to move ahead with the OGP, and the final discussions are underway to make that happen.

The Prime Minister was expected to approve in-principal policy, which would provide direction for machinery of government negotiations which are currently underway and which will ultimate decide how Australia’s commitment to the program will be managed.

The Open Government Partnership began in 2011 as the formal expression of the international Gov2.0 for driving things like using social platforms to encourage participatory government, improved transparency and open data.

It has subsequently moved further into digital government space, with government as a platform initiatives now central to its ambitions.

Former Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus had announced Australia’s commitment to joining the OGP in May 2013, in the final months of the Gillard Government. But the election of the Abbott Government halted momentum. Certainly Attorney General George Brandis did not show any enthusiasm for the initiative.

In fact, Senator Brandis oversaw reduced funding for the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. Any commitment to the OGP was effectively put on ice.

But given that its core initiatives around transparency, open data and technology and innovation are so central to the digital government initiatives that Prime Minister Turnbull continues to champion, it is not surprising that they are back on the agenda as a priority.

Countries wanting to join the OGP are required to conduct extensive public and stakeholder consultations and publish a national action plan for open government. Although Australia had previously done considerable work in these areas, the process now could take two years to complete.

The positive impact of the movement of responsibility for digital government into the Prime Minister’s office is now being felt. The Digital Transformation Office is now in the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, but the broad sweep of digital government policy – from important tech procurement issues to open data initiatives – are being driven by the PMO.

It means the OGP initiatives will take direction from the most powerful office in government – although its various parts may reside in the AG’s department, or Communications, of Finance.

The Open Government Principles are around transparency, accountability, citizen participation, and technology & innovation. To be eligible to join the OGP, countries have to have demonstrated a track record in four key areas – Fiscal Transparency, Access to Information, Income and Asset Disclosure, and Citizen Engagement.

How the Turnbull Government’s commitment to the OGP would be administered has not been revealed, but may involve a rethinking of agencies like the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner – which handles the Freedom of Information region. It may also see the creation of a Government chief data scientist, or a data commission.

The roadmap for Australian engagement in the OGP is fairly straight-forward. The government has used the digital government initiatives in the UK as its primary role-model, and the US as its secondary point of inspiration.

Both the UK and the US governments are active participants in the OGP.

Australia had been one a leader in the development of the open government initiatives. Under then-Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, the Commonwealth strides toward implementing a Gov2.0 agenda, including the establishment of the OAIC, the strengthening of the FOI regime, better collaborative arrangements, and the first steps towards Open Data.

The record since the 2010 election has been dismal, and progress in this area had entirely stalled in the past two years.

Australia’s first Information Commissioner John McMillan resigned earlier this year and has not been replaced. Australia’s Freedom of Information Commissioner James Popple also resigned this year and has not been replaced either.

Culturally, the public service commitment to open government has gone backwards. The circa-2010 declaration that the default position for government was that data/information was public unless it could outline reasons for the contrary was turned on its head.

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