Submission: Open Government Action Plan

New Zealand has been a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) since 2013. This is an international organisation that is jointly governed by civil society organisations and governments. Members sign up to the Open Government Declaration, and commit themselves to producing National Action Plans for their own country. These documents, which are meant to be co-created by civil society and government, contain commitments for taking action designed to improve services and policies by making them more open. The quality of countries’ plans, and their performance in delivering the commitments, are assessed by independent researchers.

Action Plans have a two-year duration, but last year the OGP said that the Covid-19 pandemic meant countries could extend their existing action plan, and have more time to develop their next plan. In spite of this extra time, and encouragement from Minister Chris Hipkins to begin work on an ‘ambitious’ plan, little progress was made. This led a group of civil society organisations (CSOs) to write to the Minister in March 2021, calling on him to delay submitting New Zealand’s next action plan for another year, and making sure there was adequate funding available for ambitious projects. The organisations also said that the work to develop the commitments in the plan did not meet the required standards of co-design, and that improvements were needed.

The Minister responded at the end of April, signalling that the government would agree to the postponement in submitting the next plan, but not making any promises about funding. Following this, the CSOs had a meeting with Peter Hughes, the Public Service Commissioner, at the end of June. The Commission has committed itself to a much more collaborative process for developing the commitments than we have seen in previous years. We’ll have more to say about that in the near future.

Since we were confident that the postponement, the Minister’s response, and the meeting with the Commissioner would lead to a better process, NZCCL went ahead and submitted some ideas for commitments in the next Action Plan. There is no guarantee that any of them will make it into the Action Plan, as this will depend on the views of the other organisations involved, as well as the government.

NZCCL Suggested Commitments

You can read our complete submission [PDF], but here is a brief outline of the commitments we suggested:

  1. Broadening the jurisdiction of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, because intelligence activities are not just undertaken by the NZSIS and GCSB.
  1. Creation of a fit-for-purpose agency for receiving and investigating disclosures from whistleblowers.
  1. Strengthening the capability and capacity of Parliamentary Select Committees, so that they can analyse submissions on Bills without having to rely on the government department that has a vested interest in pushing the Bill through. This would also give them greater capability to undertake research for inquiries, thereby strengthening scrutiny of the government.
  1. Signing up to the UN Aarhus Convention on access to information, rights to participate in decision making, and access to justice on environmental matters. This would provide a backstop against people being shut out of planning processes affecting the environment, and prevent actions such as those we have seen in the past where elected members of Environment Canterbury were suspended and government appointment commissioners took decisions in their place.
  1. Strengthening the Official Information Act. NZCCL has made proposals for this in the past, and encouraged a review of the OIA in response to a 2019 consultation run under the last open government action plan. The Minister of Justice’s decision to put off a review doesn’t mean that reforms aren’t still needed.
  1. Adopting the Open Contracting Partnership principles and open data standard. Huge amounts of public money is spent on buying goods and services – everything from refurbishing schools to creating a new system for managing digital identity for our interactions with government agencies. Much of this spending is not transparent, and this increases the risk of corruption and wasted spending. The Open Contracting Partnership has developed Principles and a Data Standard that we think the government should adopt, so as to improve access to information and accountability. We think this will lead to better value for money and better services.
  1. Strengthening the government’s open data work. While some progress has been made with publishing data sets on, and the adoption of the Algorithm Charter, there’s still a long way to go, for achieving the accountability, participation and innovation objectives in this area.
  1. Reviewing the confidentiality terms imposed on external experts who serve on advisory groups for government departments. It is a good thing that government agencies appoint outside experts to advisory groups to assist with development of policies and programmes. This could be a step towards opening up policy development processes for wider public participation. But this positive measure is all too often undermined by departments requiring these experts to sign agreements that gag them from speaking about their work with the government. This stifles a more informed debate in the public sphere. In a country with a small number of experts in many fields of knowledge, this insistence on secrecy hands too much power to the government, as there may be no other outside experts who can challenge the department.
  1. Public consultation on draft primary and secondary legislation. Apart from rare cases of good practice, the public only gets the chance to suggest improvements to legislation when Bills have already been introduced to Parliament. Our experience is that this is not a productive manner of securing improvements to laws. We think the experience of cases when there has been consultation on draft legislation shows that this should be adopted as standard practice. Departing from this should only be possible in limited circumstances, and the work on this commitment would involve defining those circumstances where not consulting on draft legislation might be justified.
  1. Free access to all judgments of New Zealand courts and tribunals. Access to case law – which is crucial for understanding what the law is, and what people’s obligations are – is haphazard and dependent on funding and subjective views on what is worth spending the money on publishing. Huge amounts of case law can only be accessed through very expensive subscriptions to private legal databases. The underfunding of tribunals means that often no written record is even produced. We should all have access to the output of our courts and tribunals for no charge.
  1. Creating an independent video platform to enable free public viewing of all select committees, Hansard reporting of all select committees, and improving the Parliamentary website. At the moment, if people want to watch what happens in select committees, they have to access the video via Facebook, because Parliament hasn’t been given enough money to develop its own independent video publishing system. Many people don’t want to use Facebook because of its privacy practices (among other things), but it also provides very poor functionality in terms of finding or linking to particular parts of the video recording. We think there’s a lot that Parliament could learn from the Welsh Assembly’s system.

If you have comments on these ideas for commitments in the next open government action plan, please let us know. If you’d like to read the commitments suggested by others, this site was created by the Public Service Commission.