The Federal Government is scratching around for money to bolster an evaporating revenue base. Documents produced under Freedom of Information laws suggest that the Abbott Government is still considering whether to join the Open Government Partnership, yet open data has a reported total potential value of A$64 billion per annum to Australia. Well, what about it Mr Abbott? Unfortunately transparency in out parliamentary democracy seems to be heading the other way, with the cone of silence over reporting on refugees, data retention laws being passed and the secretive Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations continuing.
Open Government is about knowing what your government is up to. It’s about the decentralisation of information. It’s about telling us what our leaders are thinking and planning and actually doing. It’s about giving citizens the ability to participate meaningfully instead of treating them as passive recipients of “selected” information. It’s about giving us the means to hold our government to account.
Information is critical to fighting corruption and promoting fair competition. It should include sufficient detail to actually be useful, be in user-friendly formats, be widely available and be kept up to date. Imagine government and privately funded support for training ordinary people like workers, bureaucrats and teachers to be able to access the data and locate information quickly and effectively. Imagine the jobs that could be created from open data business incubator programs which develop tools and applications to help explore and decipher datasets, or which develop services to analyse and supply refined government data to third parties interested in particular economic, social and political impacts.
At the Open Government Partnership meeting last year - which Prime Minister Abbott attended - President Obama said: “I think it’s fair to say that all governments think they’re doing what’s right, and don’t like criticism. And it’s shocking to say that not all criticism from civil society is always fair. But, as leaders, making our governments more open does mean that as a consequence of that criticism, there’s self-reflection. And it means that questions are asked that might not have otherwise been asked. And that groupthink doesn’t develop inside of a government, and that people don’t start as easily as rationalising behaviour that, if shown in the light of day, people would object to.”
A report of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation ranked Australia 10th in the world open data rankings yet rated it poorly on effective implementation. Why the discrepancy? Is the Abbott Government reluctant to release core data on how governments are spending money? On how public services are performing? Or any other information that might identify and help fight corruption, critically important when there's no Federal Independent Commission against Corruption?
Contrast this to the US where, implementing its Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, the government set up USAspending.gov in 2007 to “make it easier for Americans to access and understand how federal government spends their tax dollars.” It’s a model the Abbott Government could replicate here, even with legitimate criticisms of that site.
But the Abbott Government is only “positively inclined” to sign on to the Open Government Partnership, saying it is still “going through all of the considerations that need to be gone through before we make a final decision.”
The Abbott government seems to have an aversion to informed criticism and self reflection. It seems to be run as a separate and autonomous corporation bearing the hallmarks of many religious institutions with its high priests, dogma and secrecy. This has created a deep sense of fundamental antagonism between the central powerbrokers, the rest of the government and the people it governs. But elections are now being won or lost on the issue of trust so there’s no better time for the Abbott Government to rebalance its relationship with its "outer circles" and with citizens, starting with a centrifugal approach to government information.
Hiding information from citizens, cowering from scrutiny and deflecting criticism by tactics of aggressive distraction are not characteristics of a mature, confident or competent government in the modern information age.
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