OGP action planning: Not a good start

Guest Opinion

by Andrew Ecclestone

Committee Member of New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties

Tuesday 3 March saw the first workshop to help develop New Zealand’s next (fourth) Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan. Last month’s issue of Transparency Times provided detail of what that process could entail. It also indicated how civil society organisations might want to make more of an effort this time to demand the inclusion of commitments that will lead to real change on things they care about.

Worrying indications from this first workshop, organised by the State Services Commission (SSC), suggest we’re on course for another unambitious ‘do little’ plan, unless more people get involved to push for higher quality commitments.

Poor promotion leads to poor attendance

First, unlike most government consultation exercises, there has been no ministerial press release inviting people to take part. Nor did the Minister attend the workshop, unlike his predecessor. This absence speaks volumes about the priority given by the Minister, and a lack of understanding about the opportunity these plans provide, to build trust as well as delivering on their agenda.

Neither did the State Services Commissioner issue a release, or ensure the current work to develop the action plan appears on the all-of-government Consultations Listing page.

As of 10 March the government’s OGP twitter account has only published a single tweet about these workshops – on 10 February.

This might explain why less than twenty members of the public and civil society representatives were present at this first workshop in Wellington (excluding members of SSC’s advisory panel).

Workshop concerns

Missing at the outset was an explanation about what the OGP is, and the standards for co-creation of the National Action Plan. While most people in the room were there because they already knew about the OGP, the hope is to attract new people to participate.

Instead, there was a distracting conversation about whether participants in an open government workshop wanted their comments kept confidential (see photo).

Ignoring shortcomings of the first three plans

There was no attempt to explain how the government intended to address the shortcomings in its process for creating the last three action plans.

For example, at the July 2018 ‘Synthesis workshop’ for the current action plan, non-government participants were unhappy when told of the commitments offered up by departments, and how these fitted within the ideas suggested at previous workshops. There was no opportunity to work with officials to draft the wording of the action plan commitments.

No reassurance was provided by SSC officials to explain how things were going to be better this time around. Since they provided no feedback on the consultation they ran in December on the draft proposals for developing this next action plan, they appear not to understand the importance of the standard practice of closing the feedback loop with people who volunteer their time and effort. This is problematic, because the OGP is predicated on iterative learning from earlier shortcomings.

Where is the Official Information Act (OIA)?

More than 15 months after the last action plan committed the government to considering whether to review the Official Information Act (OIA), Ministers are still trying to decide whether there should be a review of this key law for openness. It’s worth noting that the Ministry of Justice has:

  1. removed all mention of its consultation exercise on this topic from its website (unlike other consultation exercises);
  2. still has not published the submissions it received, nor its analysis of those submissions; and
  3. refused an OIA request for the advice it says it provided to the Minister of Justice on this topic in September 2019.

A commitment, merely to consider whether to review the foundation of our openness framework, sitting within an action plan intended to create more open government, has been shrouded in such secrecy as to render the process beyond ironic. It’s likely we’ll see a narrowly scoped review, conducted by the Ministry of Justice, announced just before the action plan ends in June.

At this point readers may wish to watch the very first episode of Yes, Minister which was broadcast 40 years ago in February 1980 – it was called ‘Open Government’.

OIA not being considered

Workshop attendees were given a clear signal by the senior official that suggestions for improvement of the Official Information Act (OIA) were not being considered. This is because Ministers are still trying to decide whether there should be a review of this key law for openness. (See side bar.)

Fait accompli (again)

Considering that the ethos of the OGP and creation of the action plans is ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-design’, it is troubling that officials had predetermined the broad action plan themes to be ‘Participation’, ‘Responsiveness’ and ‘Transparency and Accountability’. They were presented to attendees as a fait accompli, to be addressed in their discussions, with no invitation to suggest different themes for the action plan.

The OGP is indeed about openness as an instrument to shape and deliver services that are better for the publics that governments serve. As one who has participated in the development of New Zealand’s three previous action plans, it is apparent that if we continue in the pre-defined direction, we will once again produce an action plan that delivers more business-as-usual by government departments.

Alternatively, more imaginative and potentially transformative, over-arching themes for the next action plan might instead be how open government can assist with key issues. Examples include climate change, the government’s well-being indicators, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or even making more progress on the recommendations made by Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) in its National Integrity System Assessment 2018 Update. The Independent Reviewer of New Zealand’s OGP participation, Keitha Booth, offers several excellent suggestions in her recently published report on the design of the last action plan.

Lack of funding

Finally, there was no assurance that additional money would be available to departments leading action plan commitments. After three OGP action plan cycles, the Government now has the experience (and has been advised) to align development of the plans with the budget cycle, and encourage agencies to make budget bids. Until this happens, action plans will continue to be full of activities that should have occurred anyway. Or comprise of ‘side projects’ delivered on a wing-and-a-prayer by overworked officials with no funding for the additional work they have taken on.

Breaking the cycle

170 years ago, Marx and Engels were discussing how history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. New Zealand is now working on its fourth OGP National Action Plan with the risk that a lack of Ministerial interest may lead to the whole process becoming risible.

While I’ve focussed on procedural shortcomings, the key effort to break this cycle of under-performance is to ensure as many people as possible get involved now, and push for high-quality commitments. These must articulate clear, logical connections between the actions promised and the goals they are aiming for. And they must be properly resourced.

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