• Closed Processes Don’t Make For Open Government

    New Zealand has long enjoyed an enviable reputation as an international citizen. We are regularly rated as one of the most effective democracies in the world, and we recently topped a survey as the world’s most socially advanced country.

    No surprise then that – although, as an Official Information inquiry revealed, somewhat reluctantly and belatedly – our government has decided to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international organisation devoted to bringing governments around the world closer to their people.

    The move comes at a time when the government is no doubt looking for international friends, particularly in the context of our quest for a seat on the UN Security Council. We need something, after all, to offset the perception that we are a little too keen to please the Americans, and to divert attention from the cavalier way we have cut our historical links with UNESCO – the UN’s longest established agency – over the last few years.

    So, last Thursday, we submitted our application, based on an Action Plan prepared by the government, to join the OPG. Our high standing in international eyes might suggest that we should be a shoo-in; but there is good reason to believe that it may not be so straightforward.

    The first problem we may face is that the Action Plan should specify the commitments that our government is prepared to make for the future to improve its openness and responsiveness to the people – yet our application seems unlikely to make any such specific future commitments.

    Instead, the government offers as evidence of its support for OGP ideals two programmes that are already in place and that, it may be thought, fall somewhat short of the openness that is required.

    The first is the Better Public Services (BPS) programme – a product of ideological preference rather than open consultation; indeed, it was put in place without any consultation at all. The ethos at the heart of this programme is the conviction that privatisation and contracting out deliver better results than public services, which should be replaced wherever possible by private commercial provision. Does a programme that advocates lower transparency and more privatisation really qualify as a step towards more open government?

    The second element – the government’s ‘digital by default’ delivery of public services – is also problematic, and hardly in the spirit of open government. The essence of this initiative has been the closure of local offices across the country in favour of web-only delivery and 0800 services which depend greatly on pressing this or that number for options. Most of these services are intended for people needing face-to-face help and advice and who might struggle trying to access or being familiar with the required technology.

     

    Imagine English is not your first language – remembering that advice services to immigrants are a prime example of the services affected by this so-called reform. Imagine you have a disability or have difficulty negotiating the web to find what you want online – or you can’t afford a secure and fast broadband connection, or broadband in your part of the country is still years away.

    Would you still be inclined to see this supposed step towards open government as making public services more accessible? The truth is that ‘digital by design’ is really about government convenience and cost-cutting, not open government and better-quality citizen engagement.

    And even taken at face value, the government’s ‘reform’ is merely about access, not about two-way consultation that gives citizens a say in the decisions that affect them. It is designed to shape individualised interactions, not to engage and involve community organisations representing the considered views of large numbers of people.

    And that is precisely the deficiency that lies at the heart of the Action Plan itself. The government has decided for its own purposes to seek this certification of its ‘open government’ credentials, but – revealingly – it has prepared its application without bothering to consult the great majority of those who might have an interest in making real progress on open government.

    The Open Government Partnership itself recommends setting up a permanent structure to provide ongoing consultation and opportunities for public input in developing the Action Plan. That has not happened; such consultation as there has been has been minimal and on the basis of a fait accompli.

    So what should the OGP look for, if it is not to be found in the government’s Action Plan? Should it take note of the deal the Prime Minister struck over the Auckland Convention Centre with Sky City – the only candidate allowed a look-in? Or the replacement of an elected authority by government appointees in Canterbury?

    Should it be impressed by the secret negotiations for the TPPA – a so-called “trade deal” that will see New Zealand lose key aspects of its sovereignty? Or the constant use of legislation passed “under urgency” and bypassing the Select Committee process?

    We must hope that these are the kind of issues on which the OGP will take a tough line. We should hope even more for a government that does more than posture and instead makes a reality of its commitments on open government.

    Bryan Gould

    27 July 2014

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