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An open book for economic reform

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Tuesday, 16 March 2010


We’re all in favour of openness - at least, as Sir Humphrey might say, "in principle", but of course it means different things to different people. The original US Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 though it took until 1982 for something similar to find its way into Australian law.

But placing the act in its historical context illustrates how FOI was seen as a matter of essential civil rights. The Freedom of Information Bill introduced to Parliament last year bore the marks of a new sensibility. FOI, it tells us, is there not just to defend people's civil right to information, particularly information about them. The act extends the objectives of the old FOI act. FOI now seeks "to promote Australia's representative democracy". And this is offered not simply as an ethical or constitutional value. The additional focus is on the utility of people being well informed. The new FOI bill proposes to increase "public participation in government processes, with a view to promoting better-informed decision-making".

This focus on utility resurfaces when the bill emphasises the Parliament's intention "to increase recognition that information held by the government is to be managed for public purposes, and is a national resource".

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FOI has become micro-economic reform; it's as much about making the best possible use of our resources as it is about addressing people's undoubted civil rights to information about them or which bears on their interests. And the government has vast resources of useful information. And the internet, particularly Web 2.0 applications that facilitate collaboration between all and sundry, has vastly increased the potential value of that information.

Agencies that have always collected information and produced "content" for public distribution, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Geosciences Australia, the National Library of Australia and Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, to name a few: they have been doing great things to open themselves up and provide access to all comers on the internet. Most have embraced "creative commons" licensing to sweep away some of the cobwebs that can prevent publicly funded information that flows freely through the internet from being copied, recopied and "repurposed" as people find new uses for it.

Lots of other information exists, and could be incredibly useful. The FOI Act will often help but if it doesn't, agencies tend to regard the information they generate - say, in administering a program - as their property. True, some information will have to be withheld for reasons of privacy, confidentiality or security. But often concerns can be met while publishing the information - for instance, in anonymised form.

To take a simple example, to cope with the sheer size of the task, the authorities who sent out the family payments that made up the early part of the government's fiscal stimulus staggered payment by postcode. Information about which suburbs got their cheques when can be used for econometric estimation of the efficacy of the stimulus.

Working out how effectively about $20 billion of your money was spent is no trivial matter. But the first instinct of the relevant agency was to refuse to release the information.

And, as I've been advocating for a decade or more, firms' workers' compensation premiums are often the best measure we have of firms' workplace safety. Shouldn't we be making it as easy as possible for workers to get hold of that data - perhaps even requiring firms to divulge their own premiums and their relationship to statewide and industry-wide averages to prospective employees?

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That would be treating the information now locked within government agencies "for public purposes, [as] a national resource".

Further, these examples don't factor in the incredible power of the internet to transmit information and indeed of Web 2.0 to facilitate broad-based collaboration between citizens and governments.

For instance, FixMyStreet, established in the UK by non-profit foundation MySociety, creates the infrastructure to let people register maintenance problems in their local area. The site then conveys the information to government and tracks governments' responses.

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First published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on March 4, 2010.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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