Upgrading Democracy: Opening Windows

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The night before the Government 2.0 Taskforce was announced, I
joined a group of other Gov 2.0 enthusiasts at a Canberra laksa house to chat
about the following day’s #publicsphere on Open Government – the second in a
series of innovative consultation events hosted by Senator Kate Lundy. Along
with a chance to eat the largest noodle soup in the history of Canberran cuisine,
I also had the opportunity to gripe about something that had bugged me for a
while – the appalling state of most government inquiry websites. Why, I asked,
is it so hard to build a website that provides more than a long list of
downloadable PDF submissions? The website of the Henry Tax Review[i]
is a classic example. The tax review is one of the most important inquiries
held by the Rudd Government so far, with over a thousand submissions. Yet a
member of the public who wants to find out what ideas other people have
submitted about the future of Australia’s tax system has nothing more to go on
than the fact that ‘AAFCIS’, ‘ACT Peak Oil’ and ‘Adams, James’ made submissions
that are 1.2MB, 51KB and 9KB in size, in November, May and April.

On the bus home the next day, reflecting on the inspiring ideas of
the #publicsphere presenters and on Lindsay Tanner and Joe Ludwig’s encouraging
words on the role of the new Taskforce, one of my fellow noodle-eaters tweeted
to ask the name of the inquiry I’d been complaining about. He then proceeded to
scrape the PDFs from the url I sent him, and turned them into a searchable
database at http://ray.haleblian.com/taxreview/index.html.[ii]
It’s a pretty basic site, but overnight, purely for the hell of it, Ray
Haleblian transformed an obscure, inaccessible mountain of data into something
that is just that little bit easier for an interested citizen to use.

Beyond FOI: why open access is important

The federal government’s proposed
Freedom of Information (FOI) reforms will narrow the ‘Cabinet in Confidence’
exemption so that it only applies to documents actually prepared for Cabinet
and not, for example, documents piled on a trolley and wheeled through the
cabinet room. This is just one example of the importance of stronger FOI laws
to protect citizens’ right to know what their governments are doing. However,
in the long run, we may find that it is not the Freedom of Information bill
itself that has the strongest impact, but the publication scheme that goes with
it.

Describing the new publication scheme,
then Special Minister of State John Faulkner said that it would: ‘not only
encourage, but mandate, agencies to publish what they can lawfully
publish…the publication scheme aim(s) to change the emphasis – from agencies
defining their publication of information by what is required, to a culture of
openness where information is made available unless it is against the public
interest to do so.’[iii]
There are some flaws in the draft FOI bill[iv]
that is to establish the scheme, but if these flaws can be fixed, it will
represent a giant leap forward in what is becoming known as ‘open access
government’.

When I raved about the need for open
access government in the ‘open government and media’ group of last year’s 2020
summit, I found myself getting a lot of blank looks from FOI advocates. So it’s
probably worth spelling out the difference between FOI and open access.

Think of FOI as the ability to knock on
the front doors of parliament house and demand access to documents that you’ve
guessed are contained inside. Now think of open access as a parliament house
that leaves its windows open so you don’t need to knock, and you don’t need to
guess – all the information on which governments base their decisions, or that
they gather in the course of doing their job, is there to be seen. There will
still be some locked and curtained windows labelled ‘private’, but openness
will be the default.

The work of people like Ray Haleblian
demonstrates one important principle of open access.[v]
It is not enough for data to be released – it should also be released in a way
that is accessible, useful and re-usable. He also demonstrated the fact that
when data is available, there are many people who are willing and able to
transform it in ways that are helpful for other citizens. The following
articles explore the challenge of making use of this energy by building
open-access principles into the heart of government.

 

 


[i] http://taxreview.treasury.gov.au/content/Content.aspx?doc=html/submissions.htm

[ii] http://ray.haleblian.com/taxreview/index.html

[iii] http://www.smos.gov.au/speeches/2009/sp_20090505.html

[iv] http://cpd.org.au/article/beyond-foi

[v] http://resource.org/8_principles.html

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