Friday, January 22, 2016

How much will Australians pay for the openness and transparency we expect from our governments?

In business if no-one will pay for a product it ceases being made, or never gets off the drawing board.

Government doesn't quite work the same - many government functions and services are designed as 'public goods' - things we all need, but that many 'customers' cannot or would not pay for.

This includes services such as national defense, law and order, welfare, health care and education.

Democracy is also a service and comes at a cost - as does openness and transparency in government.

It costs money to hold elections, to release documents and data, to provide independent watchdogs that address citizen complaints, monitor agency activities and investigate corruption.

In fact measures that reduce democracy or government transparency sometime receive public support from citizens. Often this is because the consequences are not fully considered or, in a few cases, some of these individuals actually benefit from less democracy or transparency.

Many dictatorships get their start from democratic states where citizens are unwilling to invest in their own freedom and democracy. Governments on this track may gradually reduce what is visible using an economic cost argument, and foster a 'political class' that values cost-effectiveness over public good.

We've seen some of this over the last few years in Australia, with the situation of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner being a prime example. The (much reduced) Office is now being sustained on a 3-monthly basis grudgingly by the Attorney-General, who lacks the parliament's approval to close it  down.

However it's not simply governments who aim to provide transparency into governments. There's a range of non-government organisations working in this space as well, from Transparency International to the Sunlight Foundation and Open Australia.

All of these organisations rely on funds to operate - transparency isn't free - and in Europe and North America there's well-established donors and systems for funding these groups to effectively carry out their roles.

Australia lacks these donors and systems and, it appears, even our governments are not interested in funding these independent organisations.

One such organisation is OpenAus. Founded and run by Rosie Williams out of Sydney, the service has taken a range of government data on budgets and charities and uncovered key insights that have never before been visible to the Australian public.

Rosie's work has been featured in numerous media outlets and attracted positive attention from some of the highest officers in the Australia Public Service.

However there's little in the way of funding available for this type of work in Australia. As Rosie says in her latest blog post,

There is no eco-system providing financial support to transparency projects. Projects like mine tend to veer away from government funding (to remain independent politically) and do not reflect the priorities of the venture capital ideology. As such there is a funding challenge in grassroots transparency projects in Australia that can only be filled by the citizens.

Rosie has reached out to a range of potential funding sources, but come up largely dry. Her current work has been funded through the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS), a nine-month business building program which is set at the payment level of the dole. This is hardly sufficient to fund an individual, let alone grow a business.

Rosie will shortly finish NEIS and, having attracted only $1,500 in donations for OpenAus, is likely to have to transition back into a normal programming role.

Even if she maintains OpenAus alongside a full-time job, it will be much diminished - as will Australian government transparency.

If you think this is deplorable for Australian democracy (as I do), then please complete Rosie's survey at: https://infoaus.net/openaus/survey.php

You may also wish to donate via the OpenAus site: https://openaus.net.au/contribute.php

Remember that if Australians are not willing to pay for the openness and transparency we expect from our governments, then we will get what we deserve - a much diminished democracy and more opaque state.

Certainly we should expect governments to use more of the funds they already collect from us to support transparency - 'reporting back' to their 'shareholders', citizens.

However for truly independent views on our government citizens need to directly contribute - via effort or funds - to organisations such as Rosie's.

Contribute now at: https://openaus.net.au/contribute.php

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