Developing New Zealand's
Open Government Partnership National Action Plan

murray petrie

Dr. Murray Petrie

An Interview with Murray Petrie

Note: an abridged version of this article appears in the April Transparency Times.

Q. What kind of message do you think that New Zealand’s partnership in the OGP, and consequent commitment to develop an action plan, 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 where governments practice openness. People outside New Zealand had been asking why New Zealand would not respond to President Obama’s invitation to join this ‘club’ of like-minded countries.

Now that we have joined, the signal we send will be determined by two things: first, by how widely the government consults within New Zealand in developing its National Action Plan for the OGP and how genuinely it listens and responds to voices outside government; and secondly, whether the government will include genuinely new initiatives or just re-package pre-existing initiatives - such as Better Public Services - and try to dress them up as “The National Action Plan” as some countries have done to their embarrassment. 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 come up with a package of 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 timeline. 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, with the launch of an on-line discussion forum, and the co-hosting on April 14, with the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University, of a roundtable discussion on the possible content of New Zealand's Action Plan.

At the Roundtable the SSC put forward 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 complete their transactions with government easily 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 is about good government, and is not necessarily about open government at all. This lack of consistency between ‘e-government’ initiatives and ‘open government’ has been noted in a number of the Independent Monitoring Reports on the National Action Plans in the OGP. In a forthcoming publication, “Lessons for OGP from the first 43 IRM Reports’, Joseph Foti (OGP Independent Reporting Mechanism Program Manager) states:

‘This OGP value [technology and innovation for transparency and accountability] seems to be the most misunderstood among OGP values. In certain countries, a large number of commitments were oriented around service delivery through electronic means. Where these commitments had significant components of information disclosure (such as issuing audit reports or giving anonymized open data) or creating accountability loops (such as creating case tracking systems) they were marked as clearly relevant. Where they only shifted services from a paper domain to an electronic domain without articulating how they would improve openness, they were coded as of “unclear relevance.”

The New Zealand government needs to learn from this by ensuring that all its OGP commitments are clearly and directly relevant to the values and objectives of the OGP, and that any pre-existing commitments contain at least some new elements.  For instance, a digital public services initiative in the National Action Plan could include mechanisms or related initiatives for public consultation over service delivery, feedback from service recipients on the quality of services, some transparency over both the level and nature of the feedback, and the agencies’ responses to the feedback. And so on.

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 DNA of the OGP.

At the end of the day how consultative and participatory NZ is in developing its first National Action Plan will be assessed by an independent civil society researcher - as it is for every OGP member. Experience to date in the 45- or so countries that have now been subject to these independent monitoring reports is that there is a wide variety of consultative mechanisms countries use, but the more successful are those that institutionalize the consultation process through setting up a standing body of some kind comprising officials and representatives from a wide range of civil society organizations, that both helps to develop the National Action Plan and monitor its implementation.

The outstanding example of this is Mexico, one of the founding members of the OGP. The first Mexican National Action Plan was put together through a unique three-part governing system. A tri-partite commission (the STT) heads up OGP efforts. The Commission is led by the Ministry of Public Administration, the Federal Institute for Access to Information, and a coalition of CSOs. New Zealand can also learn a lot from how the UK government improved its consultation practices between its first and second NAPs.

The Mexico NAP is unique also in that it went through 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 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’ or subject areas for action: 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 NAP. 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, many of which raise fundamental issues of governance, transparency and accountability and which will require considerable assessment by officials.

However, there are definitely some recommendations that officials should be in a position to put fairly quickly into a draft National Action Plan for ministers to consider. These include:

  • The introduction of a National Anti-Corruption Strategy. Successive New Zealand governments have had ten years to think about this, after signing the UN Convention Against Corruption in 2003 that requires such a strategy to be put in place. It is hard to conceive of even a remotely credible excuse for not including this commitment in the NAP.
  • 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.

Another recommendation in the NIS, which received strong support at the OGP Roundtable in April, was the development by government and civil society of a general government-wide framework for timely consultation on the development of new policy initiatives and encouragement of direct public participation in policy development and implementation.

This would be a commitment that is at the core of what the OGP is about. Countries such as the UK, USA and Canada have included commitments in their NAPs to similarly strengthen their government-wide public consultation and participation practices. There is a strong feeling in civil society in New Zealand that there are significant improvements that need to be made in this area in the quality of our democracy.

A further area where action should be taken in the short term is a commitment to increase 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 in the availability of information on how the procurement system is performing. Globally, procurement is always an area of high corruption risk, and 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 recommendations in the NIS for which there is really no serious or credible excuse for inaction or in some cases for continued prevarication, but which will naturally take some time to work through. Examples include extending coverage of the Official Information Act to the administration of Parliament; implementing the Law Commission’s recommendation for an Official Information Act oversight function; putting in place public registers of trusts and of the beneficial ownership of companies; and opening up to greater public scrutiny organizational restructuring exercises within 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. These are difficult areas, and will require leadership across parties. Hopefully in election year some leadership might be shown, as there appears to be increasing public and media concern about undue private influence in determining public policies. The action plans of a few OGP countries have included commitments relating to increasing the transparency of political party funding and of lobbying of officials.

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 on the development of its National Action Plan. Australia was also a laggard in joining the OGP, and is in the fourth cohort of countries along with New Zealand. 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 is one of the founding 8 countries in the OGP, and has backed up its announced aim, of being seen as the most transparent country in the world, with ambitious and wide-ranging National Action Plans, especially 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 its lead from in terms of the ambition of their Plans.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is – most unusually in comparative international exercises - a ‘Nordic race to the bottom’ in the OGP. Both the Norway and Sweden NAPs were notable for their lack of ambition. In the case of Norway, the independent researcher concluded that the Plan was so vague and full of pre-existing commitments it could not even be evaluated against the OGP’s criteria.

If New Zealand ends up with a National Action Plan 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. The average number of commitments in the 41 NAPs that have been independently reviewed to date is 22 (with a median of 19). While what constitutes a commitment varies quite widely across NAPs, 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 to 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 show-case 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, while we have a lot to be pleased with in terms of the quality of governance in this country, our starting point also leaves a lot to be desired.

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