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This week I was pleased to have the opportunity to take part in a session to talk about Australia’s first National Action Plan under the Open Government Partnership.

Individuals and organisations who suggested an action in Stage 2 of the consultations on the Plan, run by the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet, were invited to join agency staff at a co-creation workshop in Canberra on Monday 11th April. I had made two suggestions, on legislative reform to access to information laws and accelerated released of closed archives.

The workshop was designed to be part of the OGP ‘civil society’ consultations, looking at how commitments under the plan might achieve the overarching OGP goals of transparency, accountability and citizen participation. During this workshop participants heard from the Deputy Secretary of Innovation and Transformation, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, other members of the PM&C team and International Open Government Partnership Support Unit were also at the workshop to lend their support with this process. There were about 60 representatives of civil society present.

The main task of the day was to discuss all the suggested actions received to date so they could be grouped and prioritised. The results – a set of commitments – would be reviewed by government and decisions made on inclusion in Australia’s first National Action Plan.

The good stuff

The fact that Australia has signed up to the OGP is a good thing. It’s a fantastic opportunity to put open government, including open data and information access, high on the agenda for law makers and resource allocators, and to demonstrate real, tangible benefits from greater openness flowing to the community.

The quality of the submissions to the consultation phase was very high. There were about 310 submissions and they are definitely worth checking out. There were some really interesting conversations and great ideas coming out of the workshop as well. Some of these included:

  • putting in place routine methods for gathering information – perhaps from existing sources such as surveys carried out by local government groups – on the government information that different communities want and need, and making the delivery of these (or not) more accountable;
  • whistleblower protections for people working for government contractors who wish to make public interest disclosures;
  • ramping up understanding and implementation of Creative Commons licensing across all government information; or
  • harmonising information access laws (this is of course a huge task but badly needed) – to create a 21st century information access regime, not one stuck in the language and systems of the late 20th

There were a lot of other great ideas in groups that I did not participate directly in; check out the timelines of participants like @craigthomler, @katska or @Info_Aus on Twitter for more.

The not so good stuff

That said, the consultation and development process has not been perfect. The workshop was missing some really important voices, from the social services sector for example, and predominantly comprised of white middle aged men and women. There were too few young people and, (I’m almost certain but cannot say I am 100% sure) no Indigenous Australians participating.

There was also a sense that this was a process that government was doing and controlling – with a bit of asking for comments along the way. No agency or control rests with the civil society participants in this process, and indeed it was made clear that there was every chance that Government agencies might reject taking up suggested commitments with no guarantee that reasons would be provided. No plans exist to ensure Ministerial buy-in, which some of us, me included, felt would be important if the agencies were going to be adequately supported (and prompted!) to deliver on commitments.

Many of these issues were raised with the organisers, including the PM&C team, in a useful feedback session on the process late in the day, and taken on board.

There was also, however, the elephant in the room that is the fate of the OAIC, as yet unresolved. No commitments or hints were given on the day as to what that might be, but having an underfunded and defanged or even dismantled Information Commissioner’s office while you are seeking endorsement of your first Open Government Partnership plan is, needless to say, not a good look.

So what’s next?

The Government now has until June to consider the NAP contributions and its own NAP priorities. The Plan will then be endorsed by Cabinet, with launch expected in July 2016. After this, ongoing monitoring and reporting of implementation will be conducted by OGP and status updates will be publicly reported by PM&C.

If you are interested in following the OGP as an interested citizen or perhaps a subject matter expert, I’d recommend joining the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network. This is a coalition of civil society organisations and individuals committed to making government work better for people through transparency, participation and accountability. The network collaborates with and challenges governments in Australia to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms through Australia’s membership of the Open Government Partnership.