Developing New Zealand's
Open Government Partnership National Action Plan

murray petrie

Dr. Murray Petrie

An Interview with Murray Petrie

Note: a longer version of this article appears on our website.

Q. What kind of message do you think that New Zealand’s joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP), and consequent commitment to develop a National Action Plan (NAP), sends globally?

A. It is more the signal that New Zealand’s non-participation had been sending. New Zealand is seen internationally as a country in which governments practice openness. People outside New Zealand have been asking why New Zealand has not joined this ‘club’ of like-minded countries.

Now that we have joined, the signal we send will be determined by two things: First, the message New Zealand sends is influenced, by how widely the government consults within New Zealand in developing its National Action Plan for the OGP, and how genuinely the country listens and responds to voices outside government. Secondly, the signal is impacted by whether the government will include genuinely new initiatives or just re-package pre-existing initiatives. If the government actually understands what the OGP is about - which is extending transparency, public participation and accountability, no matter what level a country is starting from - then it will consult widely and develop a package containing worthwhile new actions.

Murray Petrie has worked for the New Zealand Treasury and the International Monetary Fund. In addition, since 1998 he has been a consultant on public management to International Financial Institutions and international NGOs. He is currently Lead Technical Advisor to the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency and has worked on financial management reform and fiscal transparency in more than 20 countries. Murray is a founding TINZ member, has served as its executive officer and on the Board, and co-wrote the 2003 TINZ NIS assessment and co-directed the 2013 NIS assessment.

Q. New Zealand is currently developing its action plan according to the OGP required time line. How effective has New Zealand’s OGP team been in soliciting public consultation while developing its action plan?

A. After a slow start, responsibility for leading OGP across government has been assigned to the State Services Commission. To their credit they have initiated some public consultation, an online discussion forum, and the co-hosting of a round table discussion on possible content in New Zealand’s National Action Plan.

At the Round table the SSC presented three initiatives it considers would be a good starting point for the Action Plan:

  1. Result 10 of the Better Public Services Results programme: New Zealanders can easily complete their transactions with government in a digital environment.
  2. ICT Strategy and Action Plan to 2017
  3. Responding to the National Integrity Assessment recommendations

However, the first two of these ‘actions’ are pre-existing government commitments, and do not appear to have been changed in any way to introduce a discernible ‘OGP imprimatur.’

Furthermore, the first action concerns good government, but is not necessarily about open government. This inconsistency between ‘e-government’ initiatives and ‘open government’ has been noted in a number of the Independent Monitoring Reports on the OGP’s National Action Plans.

The New Zealand government needs to ensure that its OGP commitments are all clearly and directly relevant to the OGP’s values and objectives. Any pre-existing commitments must contain at least some new elements.

These elements of ‘openness’, transparency, public participation, and accountability are fundamental to the OGP. Indeed the word ‘partnership’ between the government and its citizens is part of the OGP’s DNA.

An independent civil society researcher will access how consultative and participatory New Zealand is in developing its first National Action Plan. The more successful independent monitoring reports to date are those that institutionalize the consultation process by establishing a standing body that includes officials and representatives from a wide range of civil society organizations. This structure helps both develop the NAP and monitor its implementation.

As a founding OGP member, Mexico is an excellent example of this structure. The Mexico NAP underwent two phases. An initial plan submitted in September 2011 lacked significant civil society participation. A second ‘expanded’ plan was made in close collaboration with civil society and released in early 2012. This is a possible model for New Zealand, given the short time now available to put together a credible National Action Plan by the mid-year deadline.

Q. The Integrity Plus 2013 New Zealand National Integrity System Assessment discusses the 12 pillars, or branches of government, sectors or agencies that constitute New Zealand’s national integrity system. Do you think that New Zealand’s partnership in the OGP will impact some pillars more than others, and why?

A. The OGP identifies five ‘grand challenges’: Improving public services, improving public integrity, more effectively managing public resources, creating safer communities, and increasing corporate accountability. The TINZ NIS assessment covered all these areas (and more), identified weaknesses in all of them, and made a number of recommendations to fix the deficiencies.

It is certainly pleasing that the SSC has listed ‘Responding to the National Integrity Assessment recommendations’ as the third starting point for New Zealand’s National Action Plan. In the short time available until completion of New Zealand’s first NAP, it will not be possible for the government to give the necessary consideration to the 50 recommendations in the TINZ NIS assessment.

Recommendations that officials should be in a position to put fairly quickly into a draft National Action Plan for ministers to consider include:

  • The introduction of a National Anti-Corruption Strategy. Successive New Zealand governments have had ten years to think about this requirement of the UN Convention Against Corruption signed in 2003.
  • Introduction of the systematic pro-active release of official information.
  • The promotion of enhanced compliance with and understanding of the Official Information Act.
  • A commitment to the regular publication of technically independent ‘State of the Nation’ environmental and social reporting.
  • A commitment to conduct regular integrity and conduct surveys of public servants.
  • A commitment to strengthen ‘whistle-blower’ legislation.

Short term action on two additional NIS recommendations will strengthen the National Action Plan:

  • Developing a general government-wide framework for timely consultation on new policy initiatives, with direct public participation in policy development and implementation. This is at the core of what the OGP is about and there is a strong feeling in New Zealand civil society that there are significant improvements that must be made in this area in the quality of our democracy.
  • Increasing the availability of public information on the performance of public procurement. The NIS assessment included an in-depth analysis of transparency and accountability for procurement in New Zealand against international standards and found surprising gaps. This is troubling because procurement is globally always an area of high corruption risk. The scale of procurement in the reconstruction of Christchurch after the earthquakes is an added reason to close the transparency gaps.

On a longer time frame, there are some NIS recommendations for which there is really no serious or credible excuse for inaction or in some cases for continued prevarication. Examples include extending coverage of the Official Information Act to Parliament; implementing an Official Information Act oversight function; putting in place public registers of trusts and of the beneficial ownership of companies; and greater transparency to organizational restructuring exercises in the public sector.

Beyond these areas, some of the most serious weaknesses in New Zealand’s governance relate to the transparency of political party funding, the allocation of broadcasting time to political parties, and weaknesses in enforcing the Electoral Act. The action plans of a few OGP countries have included commitments relating to increasing the transparency in these difficult areas.

Q. Has New Zealand consulted with Australia in developing its OGP action plan? What are similarities and differences between the issues that might comprise the two countries’ action plan?

A. I am not aware whether New Zealand has consulted Australia in developing its NAP. The channel of influence that appears to have prompted New Zealand to belatedly join the OGP was via David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister. The UK supported its announced aim of being seen as the world’s most transparent country with ambitious, wide-ranging National Action Plans. This is especially true of its second Plan. The UK and other leading countries in the OGP such as the US, Brazil, and the Philippines, are the countries New Zealand should take direction from in terms of the ambition of their Plans.

At the other end of the spectrum, Norway's NAP was notable for lack of ambition. The independent researcher concluded that the Plan was so vague and full of pre-existing commitments that it could not even be evaluated against the OGP’s criteria.

If New Zealand ends up with a NAP that has just a few commitments, and especially if any of them are basically ‘old wine in new bottles,’ we will end up also being seriously embarrassed. There is no doubt that if New Zealand ends up with anything like the modest number of commitments floated by the SSC to date it will be alone at the bottom of the scale in this respect.

Q. From the perspective of your expertise in economics and public policy, how is becoming an OGP partner a positive step for even further transparency in New Zealand?

A. The OGP provides an opportunity for a responsible and innovative New Zealand government to commit itself internationally to important reforms that protect and advance transparency, openness, and integrity in this country. The extra layer of scrutiny provided by the international dimension, as well as by the partnership approach with civil society in New Zealand, adds credibility to domestic reforms. In addition, the OGP provides a forum for sharing of experiences and peer-to-peer learning that facilitates successful domestic reforms.

Q. Any final comments?

A. The OGP is not a ‘North-South club’ where the developed countries tell the less developed how to do it, or showcase how good they are. This is an entirely different approach. The whole point is the degree of change, irrespective of the starting point. And the TINZ NIS assessment shows that although we have a lot to be pleased with in terms of the quality of governance in this country, our starting point leaves a lot to be desired.

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