Open government behind closed doors

Rob Bray sent us this guest post. He added this to the email he sent to Jacques making contact with Troppo “I am a recently retired public servant from FaHCSIA who is now working part-time as Research Fellow at SPEAR in the RSE (old RSSS bit) at the ANU, who for years has been involved in bits of mainly empirically based policy analysis and research.”  Here is his post, but I can’t let this opportunity go without an invitation to our readers to send us a guest post if they’ve got something they want to get an airing.

The Prime Minister recently announced the Government’s acceptance ‘in full’ of the recommendations of the Moran Report APS reform blueprint.

One of the recommendations was to “make public sector data available to the wider public in a manner consistent with privacy and secrecy laws.” This was welcome news to all of those who have an interest in public policy, and in particular those who are engaged in research. All too frequently users have experienced reducing access to data on government programs and activities, despite the increasingly sophisticated IT systems maintained by departments, which would enable the production of data – such as longitudinal datasets which can provide an invaluable resource for applied researchers.

While there have been worthy initiatives over the years, these have often been partial or sporadic, often depending upon the initiative of individual public servants, and some, unfortunately, have withered once individuals have retired or moved to different jobs. More broadly, agencies have often been unwilling to release data for fear of scrutiny of their programs, and even when the data has been released have increasingly taken recourse to claims of ‘privacy’ to bowdlerise the data to a point of unusability. In many cases Annual Reports, once a rich source of information on program and other activities, have lost their statistics, in favour of descriptions of ‘missions’ and ‘values’.

So what does Moran offer? Hope and concern.

While the goals of the recommendation are clear and positive, the process proposed in the report, and apparently endorsed by the Government, is for: “Finance, in collaboration with agencies, [to] develop advice for Government consideration on: Making public sector data open, accessible and reusable; Identifying what public service data could be made publicly available and by when, taking into account national security, copyright and privacy laws;…”

Although one would hope that the Government’s objective would provide a driving force for action by Finance and other agencies, this is likely to be offset by the fact that most agencies have little self-interest (or indeed a negative self interest) in taking action on this recommendation.

This closed door ‘within government’ strategy also seems to run counter to the broader theme of the Reform blueprint which, the PM sought to highlight as “the need to reinvigorate the public sector’s links to the outside world – with academics, research institutions and with private sector experts.”

This would seem to be a good opportunity for such a reinvigoration. I would suggest, at a minimum, that the Government establish an external steering group to oversight the work, to support the development of collaborative approaches by the review with potential users (an opportunity to use the web) and to be part of the mechanism to provide advice to government. Obviously, in line with the theme of open government, it should also publish regular status reports.

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Craig Thomler
Craig Thomler
11 years ago

Good guest post. However I wonder why researchers would wait passively for the government to establish an external stakeholder group to track information openness.

Why not set up their own group as others have done to report on what is happening in government?

They have the power of the net at their fingertips.

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

As you know, Rob, there are quite a few different reasons Departments resist releasing their administrative data publicly. Some of these reasons are indeed antidemocratic (“this could embarrass the Minister”, “its about keeping the debate focused”, “it will be cherrypicked by lobby groups”, etc). Others are not undemocratic per se but are otherwise discreditable (“we can’t let people see how crap our data are” is very common).

But one reason is that making such data “open, accessible and reusable” – data that was never collected with these qualities in mind – takes a surprisingly large amount of resources for a function that managers see as peripheral to the organisation’s core purpose. It’s a matter of priorities given limited resources.

Bluntly, if you want to do all this then you’re gonna have to hire more Canberra public servants – or perhaps lure some back from retirement :-) .

Rob Bray
Rob Bray
11 years ago

DD. I recognise the issue that you raise – but another take on this is that a little bit more attention to the data in the first instance, recognising that there is an obligation to make it available, may pay dividends.

I think you know as well as I do just how many hours are wasted inside the Public Service just trying to hunt down the data which you own agency has, and then the battles which follow in trying to access and document it for the very reasons that you cite. In other cases, while the data while data is available internally to those in the know, there is no proactive policy in place to disseminate it within, let alone outside of the agency.

The real problem, as you say, is that data production is a task that “managers see as peripheral to the organisation’s core purpose”. I see the government’s commitment as being one which makes openeness and accountability as one of these core purposes. (And my goal is to ginger this process along.)

PS I am not feeling lured.

Francis Xavier Holden
11 years ago

public servant from FaHCSIA who is now working part-time as Research Fellow at SPEAR in the RSE (old RSSS bit) at the ANU

And right there is an example of a release of data that is open but incomprehensible.

I think I know what ANU is.