On Monday a fellow Taxpayers' Union board member and I spent a fascinating morning with a group of academics, middle level public servants and representatives of NGOs responding to a request for our views about 'open government'. Sounded interesting; well yes, but it turned out to be a quick fire consultation about how the government could fulfil its requirement to report progress of open government to some international body and agreement it signed up to.
The report is due by the end of July and along with some discussions on Loomio this meeting seemed to be about the sum total of consultation on the matter. This is deeply ironic given that some of the values of open government are that consultation should be timely, appropriate and that there is enough time taken for interested parties to discuss and debate their positions and learn about the positions of others. The session was very top down. The first question as whether a bunch of documents, variously called Better Public Services, ICT Strategy and Action Plan and the National Integrity System, were an appropriate starting point. They probably were, given that there was really no other obvious starting point.
But the real agenda quickly became apparent when those attending said plainly and simply that making data available wasn’t actually the most important part of open government. Nor was enabling citizens to transact with government agencies (renewing their car registration, applying for a passport, and the like) really anything about more democracy – welcome though such initiatives were.
Officials looked a bit disconcerted and chagrined. This wasn’t going according to plan. Their primary interest was finding something meaningful to report and preferably with enough of patina of consultation to enable them to say that this was a consensus view from societal groups and not simply the view of officials. The participants, mainly Wellington based policy wonks and advisors, well understood the game and worked to fulfil their needs.
However the discussion was constructive and useful. There was clear consensus about
· Reviewing the Official Information Act to reduce delays and obstruction
· Publishing Best Practice guideline on public consultation
· Defining and codifying “accountability” and responsibility” in the public sector, consistent with the ability of officials to give quality advice
· Giving the responsibility for open government to a single agency.
For what it’s worth the Taxpayers' Union view of accountability (or responsibility) revolves around being able to find out who made which decision, when and why, seeking to achieve which specified objectives, based on what evidence and costs, knowing that the evidence and costs were themselves robust, and when the programme or activity has been implemented being able to find what results were achieved, and where these results were short or astray from the original objectives what will be done about it, by whom and when.
We believe that it is far too difficult to find out how well (or badly) taxpayers money was spend by government, and that goals such as transparency and accountability needed to be strengthened by coherent actions which match results against objectives and count achievements against costs.
Finally a couple of examples of bureaucratic jargon to round out the day: My two favourites were:
“We need to systematise our learnings here and develop some protocols around them.” And this little gem of positive sounding word smithing; “develop” became “develop a strategy to strengthen”. Of such debates is a day of discussion in Wellington composed.