Thursday, April 14, 2016

Building an Open Government Partnership plan in Australia from the edges to the centre

On Monday this week I participated in the cocreation workshop for Australia's Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan (NAP) commitments.

For background on the Open Government Partnership (OGP), refer to, and for Australia's membership process refer to my blog post on the history ( and the government's site (

The workshop involved roughly 60 participants from civil society, government agencies and individuals interested and involved in the process and both available and able to self-fund a Canberra trip to be involved.

Many had previously submitted ideas for potential commitments that the Australian government could make to improve the transparency and accountability of our national governance in the OGP consultation period between December 2015 and March 2016.

The group had over 300 submissions to consider and refine to a much smaller number of potential commitments for the Australian government to consider and, hopefully, endorse in the first Australian Open Government Partnership National Action Plan - joining 68 other countries that have made, and implemented, hundreds of similar commitments over the last five years.

The day (which largely followed the agenda) opened with an introduction by Amelia Loye (@emotivate), who the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had appointed this year to lead the stakeholder engagement process following the work I'd done to lead OGP information sessions last December.

Amelia laid out the challenge ahead - to take the hundreds of ideas for improving government openness, transparency and accountability (some detailed, others thought bubbles) and refine them down collectively into a set of solid and measurable commitments that Cabinet could endorse and the Australian public service implement over the next two years.

The Australian government's commitment to the process was reaffirmed by both the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's David Williamson, Deputy Secretary of Innovation & Transformation and by the lead officer on the OGP National Action Plan, Toby Bellwood, who made it clear that this was not a once-off project, but the start of a journey.

After taking questions on topics from the continuity of key transparency agencies, such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (answer: can't comment), to the depth of commitment by Departmental Secretaries to the OGP process (answer: Secretaries Board has not yet been engaged), we got down to work boiling hundreds of submitted ideas into actions that the government could consider for inclusion in Australia's first National Action Plan.

With six active tables, and rough guidance on an approach, people self-selected by their topics of interest (Access to Information, Public Participation, Fiscal Transparency, Open Data, Fostering Innovation and Government Integrity) and got down to work.

Each table self-organised and employed a slightly different methodology to sorting through between 20-100 submitted ideas on their topic and categorising them into broader commitments.

On the Public Participation table we integrated world cafe and card sorting techniques through the morning to develop two broad commitments. People flowed between tables, with a few 'anchor people' remaining to pass on the consensus views.

By lunch a total of 18 commitment concepts had been developed across the six tables and a process of 'dotmocracy' saw the top commitments voted on by the entire room.

From here smaller groups worked on framing commitments using the National Action Plan template, resulting in 13 documented commitments, with another undocumented commitment around creating a (sorely needed) formal mechanism for engagement between the public service and civil societies.

Finishing up in the afternoon, I was largely happy at the progress made, though comments on the same day by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet about restricting Freedom of Information took a lot of the shine off the process.

Having a Deputy Secretary of the DPMC say the government was committed to openness and the Secretary say, on the same day, that public servants must be protected from scrutiny with FOI restrictions, doesn't evidence a deep senior public service commitment to support the Prime Minister's OGP commitment.

However the commitment of the OGP team in DPMC is clear.

The excellent and inclusive approach from Pia Waugh and her successor Toby Bellwood speaks volumes about how some public servants understand and support the need for governments to transform their culture to remain effective and relevant in a more accountable and transparent world.

I'll provide a more targeted post on the topic of senior bureaucrats wanting restrictions to FOI tomorrow.

Back on the OGP process, now that some commitments and supporting actions have been drafted, the government will be following a process of reviewing them through the Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC), then costing and putting them into a Cabinet approval process, potentially with other suggestions from government agencies.

This isn't quite the 'partnership' process that I had hoped for, and runs the risk of having agencies discard any commitments that they feel are uncomfortable (ie ambitious or confronting), either by directly burying them or by laying potential risks and costs onto these commitments to an extent that makes them seem unworkable.

Having seen public servants use this tactic on other matters, I will be very interested to see what makes it to Cabinet for review.

However this is only Australia's first OGP National Action Plan, and no matter how fantastic or flawed it is in meeting the OGP goals of ambitious targets that stretch agencies, it still shifts the conversation a little further in the right direction.

Future plans will build on this one, being collaborative in their design and ambitious in their execution, leaving me optimistic that Australia's Open Government Partnership process will deliver fruit for our democracy and support broader and deeper effective engagement between the public sector and the people of Australia.

For another perspective on the day, Cassie Findlay has published a great piece. I'm sure there will be a few other reflections in days to come.

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