6 July 2011

Is the door closing on open government?

New Zealand’s Official Information Act replicates characteristics of the US Freedom of Information Act.  The FOIA came into force 45 years ago (Independence Day 1966). The influence of this US development undermined notions that information held by government agencies was a secret resource for use by the Public Service to protect the State.  The FOIA began a swing in the attitude to information.  Government should prove why public information shouldn’t be disclosed, instead of forcing people to justify why it should be.

The Official Information Act however, like the FOIA, has not delivered fully on its promise.  The provisions of section 4, that agencies must increase progressively the availability of information, has been pursued in a very patchy way over the 29 years since enactment.   A quick survey of agency websites shows how few post even half a dozen new documents each week. Such cannot be the productivity of agencies committed to transparency, efficiency and effectiveness. The internet age was meant to transform the availability of information.  But the enthusiasm of a few is buried by “inertia, bureaucratic reluctance, and lack of funding”.

Britain resisted the move away from official secrets much longer than jurisdictions like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but has made speedier progress in making information accessible.  The UK website WhatDoTheyKnow.com makes many government information requests publicly available. The site obtains requested information from the appropriate agency and publishes on line. An Australian development last month is a disclosure log maintained on all agency websites, publishing, within 10 days of release, the details of material made available in response to information requests.

The second Mix and Mash competition is now underway in New Zealand.  It encourages innovative ways of reusing official information already available on agency websites. An underpinning motivation is that novel uses will encourage greater responsiveness by agencies; that inspirational repackaging of datasets will increase the willingness of agencies to make data available.  There is unlikely to be a backlash to this development, which last year produced admirable ways making information useful to the public, which agencies themselves did not have the capacity to develop.

But that is not the case in Slovakia. Despite an enthusiasm for open government, there seems to be a change in attitude by the Slovakian government.  Fair Play Alliance, which has a website mashing public data has been charged with public order offences and directed to remove information from its website, even though the source material was drawn from published sources.