Broadsides: How can we have a more open government?

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Labour MP Jacinda Ardern and National MP Nikki Kaye.
Labour MP Jacinda Ardern and National MP Nikki Kaye.

We asked Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye: How can we have a more open government?


JACINDA ARDERN

It's fair to say that my first encounter with the term "open government' was less than positive. I was a brand new staffer in the Minister of Justice's office. I had only been in the job roughly a week, when someone asked me to help distribute a quite controversial report from the Ministry of Justice to all MPs. Being an earnest young thing, I dutifully got it done and posted it out that afternoon. But I had neglected to notice one thing: the big giant embargo.

Under most circumstances, sending out an embargoed report early to opposition MPs would go down fairly badly with a minister. I remember bracing myself for the fall out. Instead I walked into Phil Goff's office to hear him say "I heard about your open government, Jacinda", laugh out loud, and think nothing further of it.

Thankfully, naive moments of youthful enthusiasm are not what open government is about. it's about engagement, transparency, and doing things a bit differently.

The idea of open government runs the risk of sounding a bit nebulous unless it's defined a little. For me it comes down to a pretty simple principle: we're here because people put us here.

It's our job to talk to people; to understand what they want from us and government; to make sure they have access to information about issues and decisions that affect them, and to ensure that they can influence those decisions beyond just a vote every three years.

I remember having this very discussion with Clare Curran, Grant Robertson and Trevor Mallard when I first came into Parliament and, as a consequence, Red Alert was born - the first blog I think I have seen written almost entirely by MPs (Labour MPs in this case). But it was always just a first step for us.

NetHui was the latest instalment of a discussion that's been going for a while. In fact, our communications and IT spokesperson, Clare Curran, started making some waves in this area when she ran a forum called OpenLabourNZ last year. As a result, we have put a bit of a stake in the ground on what the first steps for open government should be, including a more open public sector and the idea that any works, fully or partially, directly or indirectly funded through government should be released in a timely manner with minimal restrictions; encouraging online engagement by public servants; more consultative, participatory and transparent processes for making policy; and online services that make it easier for people to engage with government on day to day tasks. The key to all of this, of course, is access to broadband.

But why should we wait? In the spirit of open government, that would be a worthy question for government MPs.

No one is saying this stuff is easy. But if we're going to improve what we do and how we do it, and perhaps restore a little faith in our system and politicians along the way, then it will be more than worth it.

Jacinda Ardern is on Facebook and Twitter @jacindaardern


NIKKI KAYE

At the heart of our democracy is our ability to scrutinise the decisions made by politicians and public policy makers. Moving towards a more open government will enable citizens to have greater access to and scrutiny of government information and our politicians.

Across the world the value of information is demonstrated by Governments increasingly seeing information as a form of infrastructure just as important as any other infrastructure like our transport system. Recently US President Barack Obama took the step of issuing a presidential memorandum that requires federal agencies to make available as much information as possible.

New Zealand used to lead the world in transparency of information as one of the first countries to bring in an Official Information Act with the purpose of making official information available to members of the public on request. I believe the last decade has seen us lag behind the rest of the world in terms of open government.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English recently signalled potentially a big shift to make our government more open at a forum focussing on open government called the Nethui. He said "we need to turn government inside out" and signalled that cabinet would consider further initiatives to open up government in the future.

This shift needs to moves us from a presumption that people must request information to a presumption that information is publicly available and accessible unless there is a very good reason.

The value of public servants in proactively releasing data is huge. It is not just about members of the public and industry experts being able to correct data, it is also about technical people being able to turn that data into useful services or applications. More and more people are accessing the internet via their phone and other mobile devices. I believe in order to provide better access to public services Government Departments will increasingly need to provide services via mobile devices.

We have progressed several initiatives to encourage the use and re-use of open New Zealand government data whilst aiming to ensure the integrity and privacy of personal information.

One of these initiatives is the New Zealand Government and Open Access and Licensing (NZGOAL) framework. This framework sets out a series of open access and open licensing principles for non-copyright information and data and copyright works. There are also plans for testing opening up public data as part of an official consultation process with two agencies currently working on this.

Access to digital tools such as broadband, and the ability to use digital tools are crucial for people to fully benefit and participate in open government. Our Fibre-based broadband package assists this. The benefits are massive, for example in the future we could see changes to health care delivery such as providing video-based services to rural users.

The open government movement offers potential benefits greater than just sharing government information. There is also an opportunity to have greater access to politicians and the political process.
With the rise of social media it has never been easier and more instant to have access to politicians combined with a greater ability to publicly scrutinise politicians.

Our democracy is better served for this ability of more people to be able to have direct access to the political process. However with this increased interaction lie challenges for politicians to try and respond to more people in a more instantaneous fashion.

Managing these expectations and understanding what requires a legitimate response will be an evolving role of politicians in the future.

The Prime Minister and the Speaker have also done a lot to open up the Government to greater public accountability in terms of expenditure. MPs and Ministers are now regularly required to publish expenses, as are the chief executives of significant Government entities. Another area of work could be to consider whether we can make our select committee proceedings more open and accessible to the public.

Through better investment in ICT infrastructure like broadband and open government initiatives, New Zealand can lead the world again in transparency and open government.

Nikki Kaye is on Facebook and Twitter @nikkikaye

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