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Draft Principle 1: Open access to information – a default position

By Fiona on 25 Jan 2011 10:32am

Information held by the Australian Government is a valuable national resource. As recommended by the Government 2.0 Taskforce, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, access to that information should be open, that is:

  • free
  • based on open standards
  • easily discoverable
  • understandable
  • machine-readable, and
  • freely reusable and transformable.

This places a proactive and pro-disclosure obligation on agencies to:

  • use information technology to disseminate public sector information, particularly by publishing information online
  • maximise the amount of information that is published voluntarily, rather than waiting for specific requests under the FOI Act, and
  • apply a presumption of openness when deciding whether and how to publish public sector information.
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  1. Dean Turner says:

    Principle 1: Open Access to Information a Default Position is supported.
    Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that while it is important that a Government Information Policy should mandate that there be standards for Government information, in a high level Policy it is not necessary to define what those standards should be.

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  2. David Glynne Jones says:

    1. Information held by the Australian Government isn’t just a valuable national resource – it’s an essential national asset and resource which is publicly funded and underpins our ability to operate effectively as a modern democratic nation

    2. There are a complex set of stakeholders for government-held public information, and they all have legitimate needs and rights to access and use public information

    3. The concept of “pragmatic information quality” defined by Larry P English provides a useful mechanism for addressing the varying requirements of different information stakeholders – it addresses key concepts including:

    - what information
    - completeness
    - context
    - accuracy
    - format
    - timeliness
    - accessibility
    - ...

    ... purpose

    4. The ‘transduction’ principle described by Stafford Beer in his Viable System Model is critical – it states that information moving across a system boundary (eg from agency to public domain) must be in a form that is comprehensible to the receiving system

    5 The Gov 2.0 principles are not comprehensive or robust – I will address this in my formal submission

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  3. Katerina Hegney says:

    In addition to making information open and accessible, significant benefits could also be derived from providing appropriate access to high quality information in a timely manner.

    Information which is of a high quality and is up-to-date can assist in ensuring effective and efficient decision-making.

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  4. Steve Davies says:

    Good morning folks

    Thinking about the principle of open access to information in conjunction with creating a pro-disclosure culture I suggest the following:

    There are many types of information concerning the internal functioning and organisational health of agencies that should be made openly available to all citizens on the basis that the APS is their public service. A good example of this type of information are the results of culture and engagement surveys. I am sure people can think of many more.

    Providing open access to this type of information would be an important lever in terms of creating a pro-disclosure culture. I ...

    ... imagine some agencies would baulk at this by evoking the mantra of ‘damage to reputation’.

    However, the obvious response to this is that the public would much prefer to see a public service that is open and transparent about such information. And let’s not forget that invariably this type of information contains good messages and bad.

    So my first suggestion is that it should be a requirement that all agencies release all information concerning what is essentially their organisational health and the views of their people.

    My next suggestion relates to whistle blowing. It seems to me that by the time we get to the whistle blowing stage the horse. So to speak, has already bolted. This is the import of the article Are you creating a whistle blower

    In terms of creating a pro-disclosure culture across the public service I suggest that what we should do is establish a secure and anonymous means for public servants to disclose information concerning the performance and organisational health of their agency. I also suggest that this information should be openly available.

    I appreciate that this may be considered a somewhat radical proposal for some and do emphasise that a lot of work would need to be done to ensure that public servants provided such information in the spirit of providing useful information.

    What we need is an approach that encourages the disclosure of information of this nature in a timely manner and with that, one that gives individual public servants a direct voice.

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    • Steve Davies says:

      I have been thinking more about my suggestion of establishing a secure and anonymous means for public servants to disclose information.

      Freedom of information is, I suggest, crucial to innovation within the public service. The focus of the disclosure facility I am suggesting is not so much about whistleblowing as the free flow of information about issues, what needs improving, or is just plain broken. Establishing such a facility would kick start cultural change in relation to disclosure and innovation.

      The default position should be anonymous and such disclosures should be public. A critical component would be setting a tone that is ...

      ... positive. That is not overly difficult as demonstrated by the various AGIMO blog and, of course, the work of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce.

      Education to ensure every agency and employee is on the same page as to the purpose of this would be needed and agencies would need to shift their stance on what constitutes risk. I am quite sure the community would prefer their public service to be, as it were, open and inviting in a substantive way.

      So the message is Freedom of information is also Freedom of innovation.

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  5. I would like to suggest that we do not just dump all our (agency) available data on the “unprepared” public. Refer to my comments on Item 10 – Community Engagement and my electronic submission (27/1/2011).
    The community engagement process needs to proceed (open) data release. Driving a community engagement initiative up front will ensure we certainly “prioritorise” the release of high quality data and might also lead to a lot of inconsequential data not being dumped on the public.
    I feel once government covers the “key” information that the public requires (it will have done its job on data release – as ...

    ... far as the community is concerned). The public will judge the open data (release) project and should be given the opportunity to do this, through on-going engagement.

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    • Steve Davies says:

      I agree Darron

      We need to do a fair bit of work to prepare and equip both the public service and citizens for this rapidly emerging world.

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  6. spectre says:

    I appreciate that this is a broad policy statement but some of the dot-pointed adjectives are relative terms that need to be spelt out in more detail.

    For instance:

    If I wanted to know the complications rate from my local hospital, where would the information have to be to be “easily discoverable”? On the hospital website? On the Health Department’s website? How would you define “easily discoverable” for people that don’t have web access?
    If I want access to crime data from the suburb in which I work, what makes it “understandable”? While I haven’t read crime data, I would imagine that there ...

    ... are all sorts of things you need to do make sure the data is not misinterpreted (e.g. standardisation by population). In this case, is it understandable by anyone but only by someone who could be expected to understand similar data?

    These issues aren’t intractable but they aren’t that simple either. Moreover, they are legion.

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  7. Hannah Mattner says:

    Also, can you please add another post to facilitate comments on the principles overall? Currently if I have something to say that concerns principle 3 and 6 together (chosen at random), I would have to comment separately on both of them.

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    • Fiona says:

      Good point Hannah. We’ll get a ‘general’ post up shortly. We’re also hoping to raise some broader issues over the next couple of weeks, to take the discussion beyond the individual principles.

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  8. Hannah Mattner says:

    To add to Steve’s second point, I offer a third:

    3. Building relationships with the media that encourage constructive discussion and analysis of existing information.

    This would help to reduce media dives on minor embarrassments, in turn reducing the risk averse approach from APS staff to publishing government data.

    The trade off that would probably be required in return is a willingness to engage in a balanced discussion of departmental information, rather than being excessively optimistic in interactions with the media.

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    • Fiona says:

      That’s a really interesting point – I think that concerns that information may be misinterpreted or used to draw reductive conclusions can discourage publication but, as Steve says, that’s not a reason not to do it. More constructive relationships with media may help manage this. You may have seen – one of the possible down-sides to open PSI explored here is the capacity for unconstructive micro-scrutiny of every publication decision.
      Perhaps the cultural shift that we’re talking about encompasses releasing not only the information but the expectation that we should be able to control what happens next. ...

      ... Open attitudes and open data?

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    • g says:

      I think there also needs to be a greater understanding in the APS of what information will be available in their Agency under a pro-disclosure policy and what is already available under the various senate orders and other mandatory publishing requirements.

      I’m sure a lot of people hear “every email you send and every document you produce might be able to be requested under FOI” but think it will never happen to them. At the same time, the senate order on contracts is already publishing huge amounts of data about spending.
      I recently saw the Canberra Times concluding in a Page 1 ...

      ... story that certain agencies were mismanaged because they Direct Source everything (according to the data) when in fact they had simply misclassified a lot of contracts.,comment-why-agencies-skirt-tender-guidelines.aspx
      Ironically, I think that story led a lot of agencies to revise their understanding of that data and improve their processes for reporting it… more than the CFO’s annual checks ever have! So even though the premise of the article was bad, the act of making it public and letting the media misinterpret it had some beneficial effect.

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  9. Mike says:

    Sir Tim Berners-Lee puts it a bit more simply.

    The same star rating should be applied to Australian Government information.

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  10. Steve Davies says:

    I suspect the major challenge in this area is going to lay in a tendency to over classify information due to the well documented tendency for risk aversion in the public service. As has been commented elsewhere, this is a question of organisational culture.

    However, we can be more concrete than just putting this issue in the organisation culture basket by addressing two issues:

    1. Providing greater guidance and examples to assist people to classify documents correctly in a world of open information.

    2. Having conversations within agencies and on this blog to build an understanding around the fact that just because some ...

    ... information may be embarrassing does not mean it should not be released to the public.

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