Case Study: OpenAustralia on Practical Transparency and Gov2.0

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Transparency

 

Why
should Government be transparent?

We want to
know that a government’s actions reflect the wishes of the people it
represents. Transparency is the mechanism for ensuring
that the elected Government is accountable to the voters. The Hansard gives us
access to the Parliamentary proceedings, but it is only one small part of
transparency. Discussion about government transparency to date has largely
centred on requirements that Parliamentarians
disclose any financial interests or influences that might result in a conflict
of interest or improper influence in the political
process.[i]

There
are a number of reporting requirements in the Australian parliamentary system that
deal with electoral processes, campaign spending, donations, personal interests
and gifts to government officials.  The Register
of Members’ Interests and Register of Senators’ Interests contain information of financial
interests, stocks and shares held, gifts received over a certain value, and
memberships of Clubs and Associations for Representatives and Senators.[ii]
These are the things that are considered to have the potential to influence
their behaviour in Parliament. Until OpenAustralia published both Registers
online you could only view them if you visited the respective Registrars’
offices where the hard copies were held. While those documents have now been scanned and are available to
view online, they are
originally handwritten for the most part, not machine readable, and not always
legible. The information might now be there to see, but it is not easy to reuse
it or cross reference with other data. Would it be too hard to have
Parliamentarians update the information straight onto a publicly accessible
document online? To connect disparate information sources we need to make them
open to more advanced scrutiny. 

If we take
transparency beyond this minimum level of accountability-focused reporting,
things start to get much more interesting. Giving everyone access to all the information that Government decision makers use to make
decisions would allow for
much better-informed debate and increase the possibilities for
collaboration. When you know how things work the barriers to participation are
lowered and you can invite others in more easily. This approach to transparency
also has the benefit of allowing government departments to collaborate more
effectively with each other: it is much easier to share information with
everyone than to go through the process of deciding what to share with whom.

How do we do transparency?

Becoming
transparent requires organisational change, but it is not as hard or scary as you might
imagine. The key is not to view it as something that you tack on to the side as
a reporting necessity, but of changing the process at the core of your normal
activities.

Let’s see how
a single everyday event in Parliament is currently made more complex by lack of
a transparent process.

Recently, during a debate on climate change
in the Federal Senate[iii], a chart was exhibited to Senators (having previously also been
circulated to Senators out of
session). There
followed some discussion about how
to include the document in the Hansard so it could be on the public
record.  There was some confusion about the procedure and about whether such a document could be reproduced in the Hansard. This confusion
only occurred because the process of publishing the proceedings of Parliament
in the form of the Hansard is a separate process from the day to day activities
of Parliament.

Let’s
imagine, for a moment, this alternative scenario. An MP wants to discuss a chart in
Parliament. Before the sitting of the day starts, she
uploads the image to a publicly accessible website which might be the official
repository of all Parliamentary documents. From this website MP staffers
download the documents, possibly print them out and circulate them further. In
this case, the means of distribution of the chart is one and the same as the
means of transparency. So, it is no more effort to make a document publicly accessible than it is to share it with other
members of Parliament. In fact, it would require slightly more effort to
distribute a document just to members of Parliament and not the general public.

This subtle
but important shift in procedure could reinforce the idea that public
accessibility is the default. Private communication would still be possible but
requires a little more effort and in most cases would not be necessary.

Is
Government 2.0 just about making government transparent?

No,
Government 2.0 is not just about transparency. In other parts of this submission to the Taskforce,
you will read that Government 2.0 is also about making
government and citizen interaction more collaborative and interactive and making
government services more focused on the needs of the citizen. However, transparency enables and underpins Government 2.0.

As you open
up to the possibility of sharing some decision making responsibilities through Government 2.0 style collaboration, you
also share some of the duty of transparency with others in the decision making
process. As government becomes more transparent, organisations representing
interest groups that have a legitimate
claim to join in also need to become more transparent. We can start with those
who already have legitimate involvement in the political process, lobbyists.

The public
has a right to know who is lobbying the government and on whose behalf. As of
July 2008 there is a Register of Lobbyists.[iv]
However, at the moment, there are a
number of exemptions
.[v] Companies
which do not hire an external lobbying firm to work for them (e.g. those that
are big enough to have lobbyists on staff), religious organisations, charities
and not-for-profit advocacy organisations who claim to represent their members,
can all currently lobby the government without this information appearing on
the public record in the register.

The joys of being a transparent organisation

For the last
18 months, OpenAustralia.org[vi] has been bringing information from
the Hansard and other federal Parliamentary documents together to create a more
useful way to view the proceedings of federal Parliament. OpenAustralia.org is
based on the extraordinary work of the UK charity mySociety[vii]
that
built TheyWorkForYou.com.[viii]  We adapted their open-source web application
software to Australia. 

All of the
development of OpenAustralia.org to date has been done by unpaid volunteers.
The purpose of OpenAustralia Foundation, as a national digital online library,
is to enable sustainable continued development of the website and also to
develop new exciting projects that give citizens better access to information,
improving engagement in the process.

All the software that drives our
website is open-source[ix] including
the parser code that takes data from the official Parliamentary website and
repackages it into a much easier to use format, ready to be loaded into our
database. We do this so that there is absolutely no question that the
information on our website is impartial and non-partisan. You can be sure that
we do not manipulate the data on OpenAustralia.org in any way that gives
preference to one side of a political debate over another because you can scrutinise
every step of the process yourself.

We’ve learned
an enormous amount from the open
source software community
.[x]
We’re committed to opening up our own data and sharing it.  To make this
as easy as possible for ourselves we’re doing as much as we can electronically
and online. It is usable
now, but there’s room for improvement as we mature as an organisation. We look
for tools that make it easier for us to work openly as much as possible
too. 

We have our
calendar on the web. We have an open
ticketing system
[xi] for bugs and technical queries. Initially, the
bug database just contained software fixes additions and improvements, but then
I wanted to be able to put in the organisational tasks as an experiment to see
if that worked for me as a workflow, and for others to easily see what we were
doing aside from writing software. In this case it has involved some extra work,
but I love that I can point immediately to anything I’ve been up to online. So
when someone asks for an update, I can just send them a link which they can
bookmark or sign up to for updates. I am currently looking for a better way to
do this.

We encourage
users of OpenAustralia.org to tell us what’s wrong. If you send in a query to
the website that goes to contact [at] openaustralia.org, this is received
privately by a few core volunteers. Whether those queries show us there’s a
technical problem, or a chink in our website’s usability, or a suggestion for a
new feature, we’ll create a public ticket in our bug database. This wouldn’t have any reference to the
individual but we’ll usually let people know that if they’re comfortable using
that system, they can follow it themselves. So far its technical appearance
seems offputting for most of our users, so we’re looking for way better way to
do that. Projects we’re
intending to do
[xii] and our
constitution
[xiii] are
all online.

We
have been developing and fostering a community of civic-minded software
developers. We run an
open mailing list
[xiv] for anyone interested in the development of
OpenAustralia or similar projects in Australia. Beyond initial private contact,
we try to steer communication to these publicly accessible forums so that it’s
out in the open.

When we have meetings, we
haven’t recorded live conversation so far, but the text based side goes
through Internet Relay Chat (IRC)[xv] and, when we use it, is logged, and minutes posted online too. 

Connecting our online community back out in the world, we recently
held our first Hackfest in June 2009 which was kindly hosted by Google at their
Sydney offices.[xvi] Over 40 people gave up
their Saturday to work with others on cool civic-minded projects. We are
currently planning two more Hackfests for the coming months, one in Sydney and
one in Melbourne, and are encouraging others to hold similar events in their
region.

While some of our data
are still more accessible than others, as we make improvements and find better
ways of bringing it all out in the open, we hope collectively it can serve to
demonstrate the possibilities of a truly transparent organisation.

We’re
committed to full financial transparency, as we have made clear on our
website
.[xvii] On
that basis we took a few small donations early on, totalling around $700.
However, we did not specifically say that we would make donors’ identities
known, so we’ll discuss that with those benefactors and make that wording
clearer in future. We haven’t spent any of those donations yet, but we know
that in future we want to make it easy to follow any money we receive and where
it goes too – follow this ticket[xviii] if you want to keep
tabs on this issue.

So what
now?

Government and non government transparency is an enabler of
government 2.0 and citizen 2.0. Transparency should not make the work of
governments and citizens more difficult, rather it should have practical benefits
that make our shared work easier. For this to be the case it is essential that
transparency is not tacked on to existing processes but becomes an integral
part of working life. It should be built into our work from the outset if possible.
We can all learn a lot
from the open source community about how to collaborate across time and space,
online and in the open.


If we make financial and other processes transparent by opening up information
to public scrutiny, we can not only see how we are being influenced by
financial and other forces, but also
learn about our own behaviour and
that of others. In doing this we can strengthen the trust in our public
institutions and public commitment to the decisions made by them. In the longer
term that will make it easier to improve decision making processes
collaboratively, by working across departments, institutions, and communities.
We open up all these possibilities by changing the way we work.


Open Australia is not asking anyone to do anything we’re not exploring
ourselves. By incorporating transparency into our own work we hope to strike up
more conversations and connections with those of you who are doing the same.

 

About OpenAustralia &
OpenAustralia Foundation

OpenAustralia.org is the first project of the
OpenAustralia Foundation. OpenAustralia Foundation is a not-for-profit
charity, recently granted deductible gift recipient status as a national online
library. Our aim is to support a nationwide open access public digital
reference library for the purpose of making information relating to public
bodies accessible and useful for all Australians. 

 


[i] http://www.transparency.org.au/; http://www.democracy4sale.org/

[ii] Registers
of Senators’ and Members’ Interests entries listed under each senator and
representative e.g. http://www.openaustralia.org/mp/bob_debus/macquarie#register &   http://www.openaustralia.org/senator/helen_coonan/nsw#register

[iii] http://www.openaustralia.org/senate/?id=2009-08-13.21.2&s=chart#g23.1

[iv] http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/

[v][v] http://lobbyists.pmc.gov.au/lobbyistsregister/index.cfm?event=faq#4

[vi] http://www.openaustralia.org

[vii] http://www.mysociety.org/

[viii] http://www.theyworkforyou.com/

[ix] http://software.openaustralia.org/

[x] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_and_open_source_software_community

[xi] http://tickets.openaustralia.org

[xii] http://software.openaustralia.org/towards-the-future.html

[xiii] http://blog.openaustralia.org/foundation/

[xiv] http://groups.google.com/group/openaustralia-dev

[xv] irc:
irc.freenode.net/openaustralia

[xvi] http://blog.openaustralia.org/2009/06/15/inaugural-openaustralia-hackfest-was-terrific/

[xvii] http://blog.openaustralia.org/join-us/

[xviii] http://tickets.openaustralia.org/browse/OA-329

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