Australia's ambitious action plan for open government

A new 'multi-stakeholder forum', to be established by July, will oversee Australia's open government work plan, with commitments already set through to 2018.

The Australian government will soon be launching a wide-ranging review of its laws and processes for data sharing and public release, with the timetable for setting up a forum to oversee this work and related projects expected to be announced within days.

Recent controversies have highlighted problems with how the government currently runs data sharing and publication, or at least aspects of those processes that citizens don't like.

Witness the public outcry over Centrelink's debt recovery program, and the widespread privacy concerns over plans to give the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) access to data from other government departments to cross-match it with its Census data.

When it was revealed that supposedly anonymous health data could easily be re-identified, hastily written amendments to the Privacy Act were rushed through Parliament. Some data practitioners believe those laws are overly broad, or even unworkable.

This review was already in the pipeline, however.

In December 2016, the government released its Open Government National Action Plan for 2016-2018, the first document of its kind. It's the road map for Australia's participation in the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international forum for reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.

The action plan covers areas including business transparency and accountability; open data and digital transformation projects, such as the release of high-value datasets to drive innovation, and building public trust in these projects; increasing access to government data; improving the integrity of the public sector, with projects looking at the electoral system and political parties, and setting up an open contracting system; and enhancing public participation in government decision-making.

Three of the plan's 15 commitments are relevant here:

  • "Commitment 2.2: Build and maintain public trust to address concerns about data sharing and release";
  • "Commitment 3.1: Information management and access laws for the 21st century", which aims to "ensure our information access laws, policies, and practices are modern and appropriate for the digital information age"; and
  • "Commitment 5.1: [Public participation and engagement in the] delivery of Australia's Open Government National Action Plan", which aims to create a "permanent dialogue mechanism with civil society".

That dialogue mechanism will include a "multi-stakeholder forum", with transparent reporting and accountability mechanisms. The first steps will be deciding how that forum will work, and then recruiting members.

The timetable for these tasks is "imminent", according to Katherine Szuminska, co-founder of the OpenAustralia Foundation and a member of the interim working group currently coordinating the action plan's implementation.

"PM&C [the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet] will shortly publish a full schedule as soon as we've [the IWG] finalised the details. They'll clearly outline the process, what opportunities people will have to influence the design and makeup of this multi-stakeholder forum, including what form it takes, and the terms of reference," Szuminska told ZDNet.

"It's a necessarily ambitious timetable given that there are 15 open government reforms in play now."

The Interim Working Group includes representatives from federal and state governments, as well as non-government agencies including the Australian OGP Civil Society Network, the Law Council of Australia, the Uniting Church in Australia, Monash University, and the OpenAustralia Foundation.

It's expected that the multi-stakeholder forum will include people from beyond the usual-suspect non-government players.

Meanwhile, commitment 3.1 work on legislative reform is in its early stages.

"Currently, that commitment is in the 'develop, in consultation with stakeholders, a range of options for reform to information access laws, policies, and practices' phase, and I'm expecting to see this to go out to broader public consultation in July," Szuminska said.

Work on commitment 2.2, about trust building, is also proceeding.

According to the latest progress report (DOCX), PM&C has released a "process for publishing sensitive unit record level public data as open data", and is working with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) to improve privacy protections within the Australian Public Service.

"Australia is in the process of adopting the International Open Data Charter, and is on track to meet this milestone. PM&C is developing a whole-of-government framework for building trust in the public data agenda. The framework will go beyond what is committed to in the National Action Plan and will be consulted on publicly," the report says.

The IWG has agreed to revamp the project website to include regularly updated and accurate information on the implementation of Australia's commitments.

"I understand that goes up in July. It's proposed there will be a dashboard, so everyone can see how it's going very easily, and hold government agencies to account on those 15 commitments," Szuminska said.

"I'm interested to know if people think the Italian one is a good model."

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