A new system for open government

A project to research the issues involved in designing a coherent and effective system for open government in Aotearoa New Zealand. What do people inside and outside government think will make our governance systems more open?

“The area of greatest opportunity for extending the openness of our system of government lies in increasing accessibility to advice about issues of significant public policy or programmes prior to decisions being made so that one of the purposes of the Official Information Act (participation by New Zealanders in the making of laws and policies) can be better achieved.”

Sir Brian Elwood, (then) Chief Ombudsman: ‘The Need for an Official Information Culture’, speech to the Institute for International Research Public Law Conference, Wellington 2001.

The purpose of the project is to analyse the systemic issues around open government in New Zealand, understand the desired outcomes for different participants in the system, and produce a report and outcomes model to enable the creation of a new legal framework for open government.

Open government is a broad concept with differing definitions.[1] Loosely speaking, while ‘transparency’ concerns a one-way flow of information, hopefully designed to enable people to understand a particular topic, ‘open government’ is about two-way flows of information and ideas, and active public participation in government processes and public accountability.

While legal rights for people to access information held by public authorities (such as under the Official Information Act) are the foundation of open government, we know that the ability of the OIA to function well depends on other parts of our governance system – such as a functioning recordkeeping system, public management standards and agency culture. Therefore, while this project has been prompted by the need to overhaul our access to information laws it is not limited to those laws alone. The project’s recognition of the importance of these other components of the system to produce open government is key.

The project will use systems and power analyses to investigate the factors at work in our existing open government framework. It will look at what leads to satisfaction and discontent with the operation of the access to official information legislation – both within government and outside of it, as well as the impact of, or consequences for, other legislation. The reason for doing so is because laws create incentives and disincentives for different actors in the system, who may be trying to hold on to – or gain access to – the power that information provides. The project will also investigate what an open government system looks like when we ask questions about the values that inform it, and the desired outcomes that reflect those values.

Central to this approach for the project is to get people to understand that right to information laws such as the OIA may sometimes work at the level of individual requests, but on their own they cannot create a system and culture of open government.

A quotation from noted systems thinking scholar Russell Ackoff neatly encapsulates why the proposed approach is to understand the system:

In general, those who make public policy and engage in public decision making do not understand that improvement in the performance of the parts of a system taken separately may not, and usually does not, improve the system as a whole. In fact, it may make system performance worse or even destroy it.[2]

A systems approach, which starts by interrogating what we value, defining outcomes, and then designing a system to achieve these, will be of greater value than only focussing on the Official Information Act and its local government counterpart.

[1]   A definition the NZ government has signed up to can be found in the Declaration of the Open Government Partnership: https://www.opengovpartnership.org/process/joining-ogp/open-government-declaration/

[2]   Transforming the Systems Movement, Russell L. Ackoff, 26 May 2004. Paper presented at the 3rd International Conference on Systems Thinking in Management, 19 – 21 May 2004, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA. https://web.archive.org/web/20060718181701/http://www.acasa.upenn.edu/RLAConfPaper.pdf

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Funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation.

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