Case Study: South Australia’s Plan for Open Access Government

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In the wake of Britain’s recent expenses scandal, ‘transparency’ has become a new buzzword in British politics. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has appointed Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the creators of the World Wide Web, to help open up public access to government data collected by taxpayer-funded agencies. At the same time, Opposition Leader David Cameron has argued that the public has a ‘right to data’, and has pledged that a Tory government would openly publish statistics on crime, education and healthcare. Britain’s newfound passion for government transparency is laudable, even if a scandal over lack of transparency lies at the heart of all this talk. It begs the question, would a government ever freely choose to open up access to government data – even the negative stuff – unless forced to by public pressure or scandal?

While it might be tempting to say no, the reality is that, here in Australia, one government has freely chosen to experiment with open access government. In 2004, the South Australian state government introduced a whole-of-state Strategic Plan for South Australia.[i]


On paper, this hardly seems revolutionary. Governments create sweeping policy proposals everyday. Like other strategic plans, this one included policy objectives and specific targets to be achieved in a range of social, economic and environmental areas.

South Australia’s Strategic Plan was, however, different. First, data transparency was at the heart of the Strategic Plan. South Australia’s Premier, Mike Rann, vowed that the state’s performance against a range of targets would be measured by an independent group of experts every two years, and their findings publicly released. Second, the Strategic Plan purposefully set about changing the nature of the interaction between the people and the politicians, the community and bureaucracy. These two features make South Australia’s Strategic Plan an important step towards genuine Government 2.0, but how have they worked in practice?

In 2006, the South Australian government updated the first iteration of its Strategic Plan. This process turned what was essentially a top-down, government-led policy initiative into something far more reminiscent of Government 2.0. The state government appointed a team of independent auditors to publicly report on how the government was doing against approximately 80 different targets. Statistics on areas such as homelessness, business growth, statewide Aboriginal mortality and the health of the River Murray were published, and it became clear where South Australia was succeeding, failing, or doing nothing at all. From there, the government called on members of the community to help decide where South Australia wanted to be as a state, and what we had to do to get there. Almost 2000 South Australians took part in community consultations, wrote emails or sent text messages to contribute to the policy-making process.

Since2006, South Australia’s experiment with open access government has had mixed
results. The process of creating, revising and enacting South Australia’s Strategic Plan has been accompanied by some important shifts in government thinking. Opening up access to government data and trusting the community to help come up with, and implement, government policy is a scary thing for politicians and bureaucrats. Tanya Smith, Deputy Chief Executive of South Australia’s Department of Premier and Cabinet, told me that:

‘There was a fair amount of fear in the government about the risk of sharing data with
the community, when that data revealed less than ideal progress towards a target.’

Over time, however, Smith believes that this fear has receded noticeably, particularly because the Premier has maintained his commitment to data transparency. More importantly, Smith argues that the reliance on data-and the commitment to sharing that data-has made the government and the public service far more focused on evidence-based decision-making.

The evidence used in this decision-making has been made publicly-available in
statistical reports[ii] on South Australia’s performance against 98 different targets. These reports are updated every six months. Where possible, target data is disaggregated by geographic region, gender, age and for Aboriginal South Australians. While more than half of the Plan’s targets are measured using data already available in the public domain, the government also publishes administrative data held by government agencies about their programs, as well as data collected by a government-led Household Survey[iii]
which was initiated as part of the Strategic Plan. From the perspective of an outsider looking into government, one of the most important outcomes is that members of the community no longer have to trawl through a myriad of reports and websites to find data on South Australia’s key social, economic and environmental indicators.

Has this new access to data actually reshaped governance in South Australia? Government 2.0 represents a shift in implementing government, so that those on the outside have real ability to communicate, collaborate and participate in decision-making. Those who have led South Australia’s Strategic Plan are the first to acknowledge that community collaboration still has a long way to go. Smith told me that:

‘The tricky bit always comes with seeking ongoing community involvement but not
being able to necessarily fund that engagement. We are counting on the concepts
of shared interests and goals to keep people on board and sometimes that isn’t
enough.’

While South Australia’s Strategic Plan has created mechanisms for community involvement in developing and achieving state targets, the government freely admits that they have still chosen to place government at the centre of the Plan.

In addition, although the Strategic Plan has taken important steps in opening up data and decision-making processes, the Plan is short on targets relating to transparency in general. The first iteration of the Strategic Plan included a measure on improving the transparency of government decision-making. Today, however, the Strategic Plan measures only the transparency of government decisions which have an impact on the business community. While it is clear that the South Australian government has made a broad commitment to opening up the process of governance in South Australia, there is always the risk that
this commitment might wane without a formal measure of the government’s progress on transparency.

Yet from the perspective of a community member who has been closely involved with
the Strategic Plan, I would argue that South Australia’s experiment with open access government has been remarkably successful in three particular ways.

First, by actively seeking out the contribution of the public and non-government sector, the South Australian government demonstrated a fundamental respect for knowledge and experience held outside the bureaucracy. That respect increased when the government accepted virtually all of the community’s recommendations about the targets that should be included in the Plan and how they should be achieved. It is also worth remembering that the Strategic Plan has teeth; success or failure in meeting targets is published openly. Furthermore, the departmental Chief Executives must report to the Premier and Cabinet on how far they’ve come in achieving targets such as increasing the use of public transport, reducing the proportion of low birthweight babies, or raising the proportion of young people enrolled to vote.

Second, South Australia has experienced an attitudinal shift about the benefits of open
access government. Quite simply, the government cannot achieve the Strategic Plan’s targets on its own. Improving the health of South Australians, for example, does not only require the provision of government-funded healthcare services. It is arguably more important that South Australia finds ways to ensure that individuals take their own preventive healthcare steps throughout life. Yet working out how to make this happen in practice cannot take place behind closed government doors. As Smith notes,

‘If you want the community to be involved in achieving the targets, then they need to feel a sense of ownership. That only comes if they’ve been invited in to help design the target and its measure.’

Finally, South Australia’s experiment with open access government has begun to create new opportunities for problem solving, both within and outside government. The Australian Institute for Social Research based at the University of Adelaide has expanded the data collected by South Australia’s Strategic Plan to produce an ongoing study[iv]
on the status of women in South Australia. Similarly, the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life[v] has created the Australian Work and Life Index in response to the Plan’s push for data on the work-life balance. Within government, the Strategic Plan’s
commitment to data transparency has helped to enhance problem-solving and interaction between departments and target areas. Now, as the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development concentrates on building the state’s population growth by 2050, it must work with the government’s Sustainability and Climate Division to ensure that population growth does not come at the expense of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

These successes have made South Australia’s Strategic Plan a potential model for new forms of governance around the country. So far, the Rudd government has shown commitment to greater evidence-based policy and the use of targets in funding agreements between the Commonwealth and State/Territory governments. Yet for proponents of open access government, data transparency and ongoing community engagement remain the most important aspects of South Australia’s Strategic Plan. South Australia provides an
important case study for the future of open access government in Australia.


[i] http://saplan.org.au/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/

 

[ii] http://saplan.org.au/content/view/149/186/

[iii] http://saplan.org.au/content/view/152/184/

[iv] http://www.aisr.adelaide.edu.au/gio/

[v] http://www.unisa.edu.au/hawkeinstitute/cwl/default.asp

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