Open Government: Persistent concerns must be addressed

Keitha Booth
Open Government Partnership's
Independent Researcher

Keitha Booth

Independent Researcher for New Zealand’s Open Government Partnership

New Zealand needs to address long-standing open government engagement and content issues in its next Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan (NAP).

In the OGP’s IRM Design Report 2018-2020 I recommend that New Zealand’s next OGP National Action Plan addresses long-standing open government engagement and content issues. I am keen to see the government and the public work together to resolve these issues and enable more New Zealanders to participate regularly in New Zealand’s democracy.

Creating even higher openness of government’s business will help maintain the public’s trust in the government as it leads New Zealand’s COVID19 response now and over the next years. The recent decision to publish the fourth National Action Plan in mid-2021 allows good time to consider these recommendations fully.

In the Design Report I recommend:

  1. full reform of the Official Information Act 1982
  2. government working on equal terms with communities to create a public participation Community of Practice or Hub
  3. teaching civics education at community and local government level, and
  4. strengthening high-quality public media reporting of local government.

I also recommend that the government strengthen the role and mandate of its OGP Expert Advisory Panel (EAP). Government must provide the EAP with the ability to work more effectively with public communities during the development  and implementation of its national action plans.

A government/civil society decision to include these recommendations in New Zealand’s next, fourth, National Action Plan would acknowledge criticism since New Zealand joined the OGP in 2013. This criticism is that National Action Plans have not fully addressed long-standing open government issues in our country.

These recommendations are drawn from my 2019 research and interviews with members of the public, developed before the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Reform the Official Information Act

Official Information Act (OIA) reform needs to extend the scope of the OIA to meet 21st century practice. It could encompass Parliamentary Services, the Office of the Clerk, the Ombudsman and the Controller and Auditor General, whilst retaining parliamentary privilege, in line with the recommendations by the Law Commission in 2012 and others. It could build on more recent administrative and legislative developments such as the Parliamentary Privilege Act 2014.

This activity assumes that the Government chooses to further review the OIA following completion of Commitment 7 of its 2018-2020 National Action Plan. This commitment was limited to providing advice to the Government on whether to initiate a formal review of official information legislation.

Community of practice

A public participation Community of Practice or Hub, could develop expertise and standard practice for communities and the government to jointly create government policy and design government services. This would acknowledge the concern raised in 2019 that only two of New Zealand’s 2018-2020 OGP commitments offer adequate engagement with our diverse communities. National action plan engagement commitments to date, have focussed on government practice rather than joint practice with the public.

A priority new activity could be to devise how to maintain and sustain public engagement with the government in times of country lockdown, physical distancing and subsequent long-term change. There is already a sign that public consultation has been deferred at local government level.

Civics education

Applying civics education learning at community and local government level could use the resources in the School Leavers’ Toolkit developed by Commitment 3 of the 2018-2020 National Action Plan. This activity, aimed at increasing youth’s democratic understanding and engagement, would be New Zealand’s first OGP local government commitment, long sought by the public. It could build on existing work such as at Porirua City Council.

High-quality public media

Strengthening high-quality public media reporting could continue or extend the current Local Democracy Reporting Service pilot whose purpose is to provide greater transparency and public accountability of local government decision making. This pilot could extend to more New Zealand regions and communities, counter increasing misinformation and assist New Zealand’s already financially challenged media businesses as they adapt to whatever future is brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strengthen Expert Advisory Panel

Strengthening the role and mandate of the government’s Expert Advisory Panel (EAP) to meet the OGP’s requirements for New Zealand’s multi-stakeholder forum would build on its present role and success in working with government officials. EAP membership could be amended to comprise equal numbers of government officials and members of the public. The civil society members could be elected by the public, not chosen by government. This could be a solution to the EAP’s current limited ability to lead discussions with civil society organisations about resourcing or funding their OGP work.

Based on IRM analysis of all the commitment specifications in the earlier National Action Plans and the OGP’s plans for future IRM reviews, I recommend that the commitments in New Zealand’s next national action plan:

  • have clear objectives and actions 
  • specify expected results at the policy or government reform level
  • include measures to assess these results.

For further explanation read the IRM Design Report 2018-2020, released in mid-February 2020. This report proposes extra activities for New Zealand’s current 12 OGP commitments. Should completion of this work be deferred this year due to COVID-19, these could be seriously considered as new activities over the next year. They will be discussed in a future issue of Transparency Times.

 

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