Perhaps the reports of Open Government’s demise in New Zealand are greatly exaggerated. However, it’s hard not to see it dying by a thousand cuts. Symbolically, New Zealand’s notable absence from the Open Government Partnership shows a lack of interest in having even a veneer of intended action in this area.
The Internet is just a tool for Open Government. It is Governments who decide if and how they want to use the tool. (Note: I use ‘Government’ to mean Cabinet and Minsters while ‘government’ refers to the state services and public service staff.) Without active support from Ministers, even the best intentions of a small number of departments and public service staff will continue to flounder.
The New Zealand government was definitely an early leader in Open Government. I did a presentation at NetHui 2012 called the History of Open Government in New Zealand which provides more information. From promising beginnings, it has been steadily downhill. My understanding is that there is now one person in DIA and a couple in SSC who are valiantly fighting the good fight within government. Many in government are interested and supportive of Open Government but without internal and Government support, it is no more than a band aid on one of the thousand cuts.
On the political front, things looked promising at the last elections. Both Labour and the Greens had explicit policy proposals in their respective manifestos. Though flawed in the details, the Greens’ Lobbying Disclosure Bill has the right aims- “to enhance trust in the integrity and impartiality of democracy and political decision-making.”
In reality, the principles of Open Government are being systematically and cynically cut down. No tool, not even one with as much potential as the Internet, is going to help in such a scenario.
Whether it is cutting deals in back rooms or trying to minimise the amount of official information released or keeping charter schools out of the Official Information Act or keeping the Office of the Ombudsman under-resourced, it’s one cut after another to Open Government. Perhaps each one of these are not significant on their own but, taken together, there is no doubt that Open Government is dying from a thousand cuts in New Zealand.
So far opinion polls seem to favour results over means. “In the real world” and “action over strategy to get the job done” are the mantras for ditching due process and transparency. Yet these are critical planks for trust and legitimacy of governance and democracy. Open Government may be slower and more resource-intensive but involves more well considered and, generally, better Government.
Have New Zealanders learnt nothing from the hubris of the George W. Bush years in the White House?