Opinion: Optimistic for open Govt

Political scientist Bryce Edwards called late last month for a coalition to form to fix the Official Information Act. He reports back on a positive initial response in and around Government.

It’s easy to become pessimistic about politics. We’re so used to observing the vast gulf between political ideals and political practice, that it is not unusual to become demoralised or disengaged. This is especially so regarding “open government” issues, with government after government eroding or disregarding good practice. Political commentators are therefore used to pointing out the problems and threats to democracy and good governance.

Yet at the moment there are actually good reasons to be optimistic about politics and government becoming more transparent. Below are four reasons to be optimistic about the democratic process.

1. Plenty of media coverage of open government issues

There has been significant media and public comment on transparency issues lately. It’s apparent that there’s a real enthusiasm for open government. Part of the volume of news and analysis simply relates to the fact that we have a new government, which raises expectations of reform and better standards.

The best example of this is the latest Listener magazine editorial, which salutes the “vital contribution” that the Official Information Act makes “to our freedom and governmental accountability”, but points out that the legislation has been undermined by various governments – see: Information wants to be free – why is the OIA an obstacle?

The editorial also makes a radical call for the government to set up a new system that automatically releases all of the information by default: “Rather than relying on people to request information, why not put the onus on a department or minister to seek, via the Ombudsman, permission not to release it? It is, after all, our information.”

There’s also been plenty of media coverage of the Official Information Act, due to the new Government being challenged to release the infamous 38-page appendix to the coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First. This led to numerous newspaper editorials calling for the government to embrace openness. And RNZ devoted a 15-minute programme to the issue last week – see: Focus on Politics for 1 December 2017.

2. The coalition government is promising progress

It’s far from clear whether the new government will live up to its promise to operate with much greater transparency than previous administrations. But there are certainly some positive signs so far. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has embodied a more open approach with her impressive use of Facebook Live to give weekly Sunday-night updates about what her government is doing. This really does seem a very modern and open way of allowing the public to see some of what’s going on. You can watch her six-minute video from last Sunday here: Thought it was time I shared a couple of insights into this job I am very privileged to hold.

3. An improved Ombudsman’s Office

The Ombudsman’s Office plays a crucial role in ensuring open government, especially through dealing with complaints about abuses and non-compliance of the Official Information Act. But in the past the Office has been part of the problem. It has been underfunded, which means it hasn’t had the capacity to deal with the volume of complaints. But this no longer appears to be the case, with a much greater budget being provided by the National Government since 2013.

In the past, Chief Ombudsmen have not played the role of watchdog for open government, instead defending government agencies against complaints. However, the current Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, is making a name for himself as a robust new broom. He’s asserting the power of the office, and using all his leverage to ensure compliance from officials.

Last week, Boshier gave an impressive 30-minute interview on RNZ Nine to None, in which he explained his more hard-line approach – see: How open and transparent is the new government?

4. Plenty of volunteers for an open government campaign

In a previous Newsroom column, I called for concerned citizens to join a campaign for open government – see: It's time to open up the Closed Government Act. The response has been heartening. I’ve had emails from about 40 individuals and organisations that want to sign up and be involved. These include journalists, public servants, and activists.

I’m still in the midst of replying to everyone, and trying to set up a date for a first meeting which will attempt to get some sort of campaign off the ground. Watch this space – and get in touch to become involved.

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