New process to ignite stalled OGP

James Riley
Editorial Director

It is fair to say that the Australian Government’s road to joining the multilateral Open Government Partnership has been long and somewhat tortured.

But with the October 31 deadline looming, there is now light at the end of the very weird tunnel, with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet re-igniting the consultation process with civil society to get its application to join the international group completed on time.

Here’s the brief history. The Open Government Partnership was set up in 2011 to secure concrete commitments from governments around the world to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to improve and strengthen governance. It’s big stuff.

It operates though a kind of multinational peer review. To an outside observer, the countries participating (there ae now 70) look to have dramatically varying levels of openness and transparency. Some countries in the group would hardly be called paragons of transparency viture.

But the OGP operates in a kind of continuous improvement model, with countries at different stages of development committing to programs to improve their own models.

Australia made its commitment to join the organisation in the final months of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government. With the election of the Abbott Government, that plan was put on ice.

Within weeks of Malcolm Turnbull becoming Prime Minister, the Australian Government re-opened its commitment to the group, and began work on consultations with civil society. At that time, and with the efforts being driven by the Prime Minister’s own department, the government was working to an OGP-imposed deadline of June this year.

As part of its application, member countries have to co-create an application with stakeholders from civil society. That is, it had to develop a set of “Grand Challenges” and themes in consultation with the public. These are the commitment that the Australian Government would work toward achieving over the next two years.

The Grand Challenges commitments are effectively a prerequisite of joining the OGP. This is where things start to go awry in this story.

Policy development is an untidy business, and developing policy commitments in consultation with anyone who puts up their hand is an even messier proposition. At least, it is for a government unpractised in such ways.

In this case, PM&C unilaterally decided early in the process which two themes it wanted Australia to focus on for its Grand Challenges. This drew instant criticism from civil society participants.

Regardless, the consultation moved ahead. Email lists were drawn up, websites were launched, blogs written, a wiki setup, and public information sessions were held across the country.

But the timing was tight, and some representatives from civil society remained irked by the focus spelt out by government.

And then an election was called, and care-taker provisions kicked in (these provisions, of course, mean that government can’t discuss or consider new policy – and the OGP commitments would be new policy for whatever government was elected.)

The consultations were put on hold. The government wrote to the OGP and were given an extension until October 31 to lodge with its organisation, complete with Grand Challenges and wotnot.

The suspension of OGP activity during the election period sunk that consultation process. There has been a fair bit of distrust among stakeholders from the beginning, and some were now suspicious that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had pressed ahead with its development, and were readying a submission for Cabinet without consulting civil society participants.

And that’s knocked things off balance. People got cranky.

Which brings us to today. The government has re-opened its consultation process and has tried to set out a timetable that will still enable Australia to join the group by October 31.

The public servant running the process, PM&C’s principal adviser on data policy Helen Owens, says the process has been a huge learning experience. Clearly it is a very different way of working, and she acknowledges the nervousness of some stakeholders.

But she says the consultation efforts are genuine, and that the reopening of the engagement aims to dispel suspicions that there is already a pre-conceived plan for how all this should work.

“This is new ground for us. We’re learning along the way. And I am happy to say that we’re open to revisiting with the new civil society consultation whether there are other Grand Challenges [to focus on] as well,” Ms Owens told this week.

“We are really very excited about this and we think that there are great things that can come from this,” she said. One thing Ms Owens has learned is that you can’t please everyone.

So here we are. To meet the tight deadline, a draft program has been outlined. The department will create an interim working group for the final period of six government members and six members from civil society.

Applications for people wanting to join the interim working group closed last night (Wednesday August 24). The department received 40 applications. It expects to name the working group on Friday afternoon, when it will also publish an agenda for its first tele-meeting.

The interim working group will be co-chaired by PM&C Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Transformation Dr Steven Kennedy. The other co-chair will be drawn from the civil society representatives. The working group will hold three tele-meetings in September and host a face-to-face workshop around September 21-22.

Minutes from all of these meetings will be published online, just as minutes from the inter-departmental meetings on the OGP bid will also be published (these are strange days indeed.)

The working group will consider the 137 draft commitments that were put forward by civil society in the previous consultation, to be whittled down to the 10 to 15 that will form the themes for the Grand Challenges.

But Helen Owens says government is open to hearing new ideas, new draft commitments and new draft themes.

The government had sought to focus on two broad areas: The first was on better managing public services and the second was on improving better public service delivery. These were the areas where it felt it could achieve quick gains.

But it says it is open to changing these also.

And finally, Ms Owens says she hopes the working group will also consider mechanisms for maintaining on-going consultations with civil society. The OGP is set up around two-year goals and new commitments after that period. But the government is looking at ways to make it an on-going engagement.

There is a mountain to move to get this done by October 31. No-one said open government was going to be easy.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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