Time to give a push for more open government

Bryce Edwards is being an open political activist, calling for support to “guide the new government” into being “more open with its information”.

Newsroom: It’s time to open up the Closed Government Act

Calling all journalists, academics, public servants, political activists, and members of the public who believe in the need for government to be more open with its information. We need to form a coalition to fix the Official Information Act (OIA).

It’s time for everyone who believes in reforming the OIA processes to join together and campaign to make that actually happen. Such a coalition could guide the new government in making the necessary changes so that New Zealand is once again a world leader in open government, the way we were in 1982 when the extraordinary act was introduced.

The OIA itself may still be fit for purpose, but the wider official information system desperately needs review, especially in the way that the act is adhered to by government. At the moment, it often functions more as the Closed Government Act.

Now is the perfect time to act. Whenever a new government is formed, it’s normally enthusiastic and idealistic about fixing problems in the system. And when it comes to problems with the OIA, the parties coming in from opposition are highly sensitive to its faults because they’ve been on the receiving end of governments keeping an overly-tight grip on information.

The parties making up the new coalition government have protested strongly against abuses of the OIA that occurred under National. So, hopefully they’ll want to prioritise some sort of review aimed at fixing the problems.

Clare Curran is the minister with responsibility for “Open Government”, as part of her role as Associate Minister for State Services. She has already committed her government to doing much better than the last government in terms of releasing information.

But in a recent interview with the Otago Daily Times’ Eileen Goodwin, Curran wasn’t very clear about whether any reform of the OIA would be forthcoming.

Hence the need to ‘guide’ the Government.

Instead, journalists are now leading the way in calls for reform. Newsroom’s Shane Cowlishaw has recently explored all of these issues in his must-read article, The OIA is broken, can it be fixed? He says, “the spirit of this law has dissolved in an air of contempt that has spread, like a stain, from the top down”.

Cowlishaw reflects on his own experiences as a journalist, noting the growth of government department spin-doctors, and saying that the “ever-growing mighty wall of ‘comms staff’ has seemingly forgotten its obligation to the public in a desire to protect its Ministers from embarrassment.”

The new government – as well as the opposition – need some constructive encouragement to take this key area of democracy very seriously and make sure it’s fit for purpose.

I’m keen to bring together participants, set up forums, and help establish a way for interested parties to come up with ideas about how to move ahead. At the very least, such a campaign could compile all the complaints and examples of how the OIA isn’t working, or is being thwarted and put everyone in touch who has an interest in OIA reform.

There’s a lot to consider. For example: Does the legislation need fixing, or just the way that the OIA is observed? Is there a need for a new Information Authority that would be responsible for overseeing the operation of the OIA, and teach government departments and the public how to use and adhere to it? Or is the Ombudsman’s Office best placed to carry out these functions? And is it resourced and empowered enough to fulfil such a role? Should there be stronger penalties for abuse of the OIA? Does the OIA need to be extended to Parliament, or at least to some of its agencies such as the Parliamentary Service?

The new coalition government has specifically made a commitment to “strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information”. This wording is in the confidence and supply coalition agreement between Labour the Greens, and it could quite easily also be the stated focus of a new Campaign for Open Government.

Sounds like a worthwhile aim. As well as journalists and media it should get support from blogs from across the spectrum, as well as from other online forums.

If you’re interested, please get in touch. Contact me: bryce.edwards@vuw.ac.nz

 

2 Comments

  1. alloytoo

     /  November 27, 2017

    Mate, you’re dreamin’