Assembly update on open government progress

Here is a speech I gave earlier in the week as required by an Assembly resolution to update the Assembly on the Open Government agenda.

Mr Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity today to brief the Assembly on the Open Government reforms I am driving across a number of areas of government and administration.

These are reforms that, along with the structural changes to create a single public service, are significantly enhancing how my Government can serve, speak with and respond to the community.

In the Ministerial Statement on Open Government I made in June this year I committed my Government to some important principles.

I said I would promote even greater transparency in process and information.

I said I would encourage and enable participation by Canberrans in the business of government.

And I said I would work with the community, drawing on its skills and expertise, to find solutions to issues that we collectively confront as a city.

In that same statement, I set myself,  Ministers, the heads ofDirectorates, and every single one of my public servants, a new default position. I said there ought to be a presumption that information available to the Government should also be made available to the community.

We, as a parliament, as a city, and as a community, are better placed than almost any parliament, people and city on earth to make greater openness and better communication work to our advantage.

Our system of government is like no other in the country. Our community is smart, and brimming with ideas and good will.

We can do things here in a way that suits us, rather than in ways that state and territory governments have traditionally done things. For the first time since self-government, we can put in place systems we have designed ourselves, systems that fit.

As Chief Minister, I’d like to see everything I promise delivered at once, but I also have a duty to see that what I promise is delivered well. I have a duty to see that what is delivered is solidly based. That it doesn’t, while letting the light shine on one aspect of government activity, inadvertently injure an innocent bystander.

The adoption of a default position that information will be made available to the community should not and does not relieve the Government of its moral and legal duty to respect the privacy of ordinary Canberrans. It does not exempt the Government of its duty to obey the law when it comes to commercial confidentiality or copyright.

The Government is pursuing its reform agenda with all possible speed, but not without care and not without caution.

That said, today I can assure you that change – cultural, attitudinal and actual change – is taking root, right across government.

Already we have delivered on or are well advanced in relation a number of the initiatives I announced in June.

I promised to publish a weekly online summary report of Cabinet proceedings.

The first of these was published on the 6th of July. A summary of every Cabinet meeting since that date now sits online, available to anyone.

A dedicated Open Government Website is on schedule to be launched next month.

This site will be a gateway for access to Government information – including access to government material released under Freedom of Information applications.

Until now, one of the perverse and unintended consequences of Freedom of Information has been that the information released to an applicant has frequently then been selectively culled by that applicant, with only the bits that suit their argument ever being made public.

Freedom of Information ought to mean just what it says.

If the information is fit for dissemination, let’s make it available to everyone: the applicant, the reporter writing the story, and the ordinary Canberran who decides that he or she wants to see the whole context of an issue.

Of course Mr Speaker, this new website will be much more than just a repository of FOI documents.

It will be a place where Canberrans will be able to read for themselves the background reports that help guide government decisions, and even internal government reviews of issues.

As Members would be aware, I have also established and funded a dedicated Government Information Office, in part to coordinate the progress being made on Open Government initiatives right across the spectrum.

The creation of this office is part of the comprehensive structural reforms arising from the Hawke Review. Together, these reforms constitute a new way of governing as we head into our second century as a city, a way of governing that is tailor-made for the mature city and mature community we have become. No longer are we hostage to our history.

Mr Speaker, One of the tools that helps free us from that history is technology. Our capacity to share information has been transformed by modern technology. But the pace of progress is swift, and its direction can be difficult to anticipate.

Most of us have at some stage bought a flash new home computer only to see it quickly superseded by a machine that can do more things, and do them better.

The same reality confronts governments and other big institutions such as universities, which invest very significant proportions of their budgets in ICT.

That’s why I recently announced a new ACT Public Service ICT Strategic Plan, which not only creates a stronger strategic frame for the ICT investments the Government makes, but that also supports and enables the work we are doing in the area of Open Government.

One area in which I expect to see some significant progress is in the provision of government data to third parties – whether they be scholars seeking to make a contribution to social policy development, or individuals developing new ICT applications for mobile phones and other devices, to enhance our daily lives.

As with other sorts of government information, unless there is a good reason why this data should not be made available, there should be a presumption in favour of release. In fact, for some time now the Government has been contributing a number of datasets to a national dataset repository called DATA.GOV.AU.

The Government is more than happy to go further, but all of us need to understand that it isn’t always just a matter of saying ‘yes’ every time someone asks for the keys to the filing cabinet.

Data sets need to be in a form that is accessible and useable. Sometimes, for historic reasons, they are not, and cannot be quickly adapted.

Data also needs appropriate and meaningful metadata.

People’s privacy needs to be respected.

The law must be upheld.

As with other aspects of Open Government, if access to data is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

To that end, the Government is taking a methodical approach.

Firstly, we’re developing an ACT Government information policy that will explicitly address the issue of how to improve access to Government datasets, including formatting and metadata.

Under this policy each directorate will need to show that they have a clear plan to make existing, non-exempt datasets available.

This policy is part of the ICT Strategic Plan and is scheduled for completion before the end of the year.

To help the Government and the directorates prioritise and focus their efforts, we’ll host an online community consultation later this year, targeting researchers, developers and the public, so that we can understand which Government datasets are likely to be most in demand.

All of the work of recent months in relation to Open Government has been made much easier by the fact that for the past few years our Territory Records Office has been busily developing standards and guidelines for digital record-keeping.

Most recently, over the past six months, the Office has developed a ‘Digital Record Pathway’ to improve strategic digital record keeping right across the Government. The Pathway recommends mandating digital formats for long-term records, and the use of open standards, consistent with policy of the National Archives.

This work by our own Records Office puts us in a good position to really push forward with a number of our Open Government initiatives. The groundwork is laid.

Mr Speaker, as Members would know, my Government has already been actively exploring ways to encourage more Canberrans to participate more directly in the work of government.

The Government’s updated Community Engagement manual, released last week, highlights the potential of social media in this regard.

More than a million Australians are active uses of Twitter, while Facebook reportedly now has 10 million or so active users.

Governments cannot ignore these figures, any more than businesses can.

The Cabinet, in the past month or so, conducted two Virtual Community Cabinets using the social networking service Twitter, to test the appetite of Canberrans for this kind of short-and-sharp one-on-one access to Cabinet Ministers.

While we didn’t know what to expect, I’m pleased to say that the feedback has been mainly positive.

We are looking at future events, building on our experience with Twitter Cabinet, but incorporating real-time online forums as well as social media, to allow for a more in-depth discussion than is possible in 140 characters.

As with Twitter Cabinet, these forums will be a leap into the unknown, but I think Canberrans will be as keen as I am to give it a go.

I might also say that it isn’t just Ministers who are testing the potential of these new methods of connecting with their fellow Canberrans.

Every directorate has a potentially powerful and productive role to play as we open up avenues for the community to better engage with the workings of government.

As a starting point I would encourage Canberrans who have not already done so to visit the ‘Time to Talk Canberra’ website, which has become the online ‘point of first contact’ for community consultation.

If you hop onto the site today, you can have your say on the nurse-led walk-in centre at The Canberra Hospital, or join a conversation about whether Twitter Cabinet has been a worthwhile experiment.

Over time, the site will host a growing range of ‘community online events’ – from the ‘Online Community Cabinet’ I mentioned a moment ago, through to in-depth community panels, open discussion forums and wikis.

Mr Speaker, while many of the challenges we wrestle with in relation to Open Government are technological ones, there are also, in some instances, legal and other considerations that need to be teased out.

For example, while I understand the desire by some Members in this Assembly for the Government to ‘copyright’ all ACT Government publications under ‘Creative Commons’ licenses, I’m advised that such a step requires extremely careful policy development, to ensure proper protection of the Territory’s intellectual property.

This exploratory work is under way and I would be happy to brief Members further at a future date.

Mr Speaker, there’s a real excitement in the Government in relation to the initiatives I’ve spoken about today.

There’s a real enthusiasm to see where Open Government can take us, to see how it can allow this Government to better serve and engage the community, and to better explain why and how certain decisions need to be taken.

By its nature, this will be a journey without end, because there will always be an emerging technology to challenge us and push us out of our comfort zone.

The important thing is to start from a philosophical position that more communication is better than less communication, that more openness is better than less.

The structural and cultural reforms my Government is putting in place have the potential to make this city a leader in the kinds of things I’ve spoken about today. I look forward to updating Members again as these initiatives become part and parcel of the regular, daily business of government.