19 October 2012

What causes a Minister to make a call to arms, to invite the world’s media “…to hold the feet of government officials … squarely against the fire.”  The British Cabinet Office Minister who suggested this week that the feet of Ministers like himself should also be so treated, was criticising the reticence of the Civil service to implement open government commitments. But he also showed frustration that the media wasn’t using the information made available by an increasingly open government.

In the UK, agencies have published more than 8000 datasets in the expectation that media scrutiny will raise public awareness and improve the quality government. But the information seems to be largely unexplored.  The Minister called for journalists to investigate the information to hold the Government to account; to engage with the data “… to expose waste, incompetence and corruption wherever they see it.”

The Minister was marking the first anniversary of the Open Government Partnership which encourages good government through the accessibility of official information. He said that “…there’s nothing fluffy about transparency. It’s hard edged and demanding and serious … even when it gets uncomfortable you have to go through with it.”  The media doesn’t seem to share the Minister’s enthusiasm.

That attitude is mirrored by an almost uniform lack of enthusiasm among British agencies.  Many are releasing information in PDF format which precludes the manipulation and exploration of content. This disregards the Cabinet Office Minister’s commitment that spending data would be published in transparent formats. The Minister indicated that defaulting Departments “…will be dealt with”.

All of which suggests that agencies are “safe” to embrace the Official Information Act prescription of making information increasingly more available.  If large quantities of data are released, the media is neither interested nor capable of focusing  on anything in particular.  Wikileaks attests to that.

Ironically official data is in the news for different reasons in New Zealand.  The accessibility of personal information through kiosks in offices of the Ministry of Social Development in breach of privacy obligations, has stunned the Department which acquired a reputation of extreme risk management under a former chief executive. The incumbent, responsible for promoting the availability of information in his previous appointment as Government Chief Information Officer, is now “in the gun” for information mismanagement. His successor as the GCIO has been directed by the State Services Commissioner to survey system integrity across government. The champion of openness has now to ensure agencies are proper guardians of personal information.