Tools enable agencies to build trust: commissioner

Open Government provides the antidote to the crisis of trust in government that threatens our ability to serve citizens effectively and efficiently, writes Elizabeth Tydd.

Australia has one of the most stable, peaceful and functionally adaptable manifestations of democracy, yet according to international measures Australians have entrenched distrust of government.

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 showed that in Australia only 35 per cent of people trust government.

Other Australian research has found that 90 per cent of people believe they are without influence over the Federal Government, 58 per cent are not satisfied with how democracy works and just 22 per cent believe they have the chance to participate in decisions that affect them and their community.

If trust in government diminishes, citizens question the reliability of their leaders and the institutions they represent, and the social compact that underpins our democratic values and systems is threatened. A decline in trust is a key factor in the rise of populist alternatives. It makes the general business of government harder to deliver and long-term policy less likely to be addressed.

How do we promote Open Government?

Elizabeth Tydd

The OECD has identified six key areas or enablers to re-establish trust in government.

These include reliability, such as minimising uncertainty in the economic and social environment, and reliable policymaking; responsiveness; openness, including the right to access information; better regulation; integrity and fairness; and inclusive policy making.

Each of these enablers is predicated on the application of information – government information including government data.

If we’re to realise the value of this information we must treat it as a strategic asset and responsibly release and apply it. This requires accountability, transparency, public participation and technological innovation.

The information can then be applied to inform policy and service delivery, engage with citizens and importantly account to citizens and rebuild trust.

What are we doing?

Each state and territory, together with the Commonwealth, has enshrined the right to access information. That right is integral to Open Government.

In late 2015 Australia expressed its commitment to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international initiative to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. There are over 70 participating countries and 15 sub jurisdictional members.

Australia has now finalised its inaugural Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) enshrining 13 commitments to promote:

  1. transparency and accountability in business
  2. open data and digital transformation
  3. access to government information
  4. public sector integrity
  5. public participation and engagement.

Australia’s second NAP is now under development.

Importantly, progress under national action plans is independently monitored and reported on by the OGP.

Under the first NAP, state, territory and Commonwealth information access commissioners or ombudsmen committed to measure the utilisation of the right to access information by citizens, including the outcomes of information access applications.

The right to access information

As NSW Information Commissioner I led the commitment that resulted in the development of metrics, including annual publication of data, on behalf of my colleagues.

The metrics are the first of their kind and enable the community to examine the performance of their local FOI laws and to advocate accordingly. They also improve the public’s understanding of FOI laws.

They show that, in 2015-16, some 129,362 Australians exercised their right to formally apply to access government information.

This measurement provides sound insights into the operation of the legislated right to access information in each state, territory and the Commonwealth and helps to guide policy and legislative development.

Importantly, the legislation in each jurisdiction differs and information commissioners have developed a companion piece, a legislative compendium to the dashboard, to evaluate the operation of the right to access information.

Some jurisdictions, like NSW, have moved from a reactive or “pull model” of information release to a proactive or “push model”. The push model requires agencies to proactively push information out to the community. This difference may be reflected in the national dataset dashboard particularly in the number of applications made to access information.

In NSW there has been a 20 per cent increase in the number of applications received by agencies over the past two years, reflecting the increasing value the community places on its right to access government information.

Since 2014, the Information and Privacy Commission (IPC) has conducted a biennial cultural survey to assess the importance of the right to access government information. Over the past four years and three surveys, between 84 and 89 per cent of respondents view the right to information as very or quite important.

Expanding openness under NSW legislation

The IPC has developed a public, interactive ‘GIPA dashboard’ to facilitate transparency and enhanced performance by agencies as they undertake their responsibilities under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act).

The dashboard contributes to a greater understanding of the GIPA operations of agencies, improved visibility and self-assessment of performance and therefore increasing compliance, and improved efficiency through agencies comparing their performance.

It’s also led to greater collaboration between agencies on areas of common interest, improved transparency and a streamlined ability for agencies to report and demonstrate compliance.

In terms of public participation, the GIPA Act enshrines a commitment to NSW citizens that government decision-making will be open, transparent and accountable and will promote public participation.

Under the GIPA Act, agencies are required to produce current information guides to ensure government information is publicly available and up-to-date, as well as helping the public to participate in the making of policy and the delivery of services by NSW Government agencies.

In coupling this legislative certainty with opportunities to participate in policy formulation and service delivery, the GIPA Act provides the mechanism to promote responsiveness by government.

In June 2018 the IPC launched a Charter for Public Participation – A Guide to assist agencies and promote citizen engagement. The charter provides a resource for agencies to guide them in implementing improved public participation. Ultimately, it’s a critical tool to support agencies in realising the benefits of Open Government and the GIPA Act.

Collective activation of principles

The opportunities presented through the digitisation of government records will promote and support these principles.

Only 10 per cent of the last generation of Australians had the benefit of a tertiary education. In the current generation 30 per cent of Australians have a tertiary education. Their expectations of government and democracy have increased and evolved.  Technology facilitates transparency, accountability, public participation and collaboration. Government information, including data, must be responsibly harnessed and applied to deliver more Open Government and restore trust in government.

Elizabeth Tydd is the NSW Information Commissioner and CEO of the Information and Privacy Commission.

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