Hung parliament? There is a silver lining…

The latest election in the United Kingdom has resulted in a hung parliament – something we’re familiar with here in Australia. Our 2010 federal election ended in a hung parliament, with six crossbenchers holding the balance of power in an uneasy alliance with the Australian Labor Party. And our last election was so close that the result wasn’t known for over a week, with the Coalition only just managing to win the 76 seats necessary to control the House of Representatives in their own right without crossbencher support – which I’m sure the Coalition Government is thankful for since, if there’s one thing we learnt from the the former Labor Government’s experience, it’s that crossbencher-agreements attract their fair share of controversy. Just look at the current UK election coverage!

But despite the fuss and tensions caused by a close result, there is an unintended benefit: attendance! The closer the numbers are between parties, the more likely our Members of Parliament (MPs) will show up to make sure they keep ahead of their opposition.

This is certainly the case in Australia, where the Coalition leads by a majority of one MP in the House. So far in 2017, only two divisions (or formal votes) have involved less than 91% of MPs. This can be compared to 2014, the year after the Coalition won a firm majority in the House, when most divisions were voted on with less than that number of MPs.

So despite the media storm caused by a close result, at least we can count on higher attendance figures as a nice silver lining.

What’s so good about attendance?

In our democracy, we vote for politicians to represent us – both at an electorate level with our MPs in the House of Representatives and at a state level with our Senators in the Senate. Some MPs and Senators have other jobs – acting as ministers or leaders in some capacity – but ultimately we vote for them to represent us in whichever house of Parliament they belong to. And the main way they do this is by voting on our behalf – a power each one of them has, from the backbencher who never makes it onto the news to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Each has one vote, though the vote is not actually theirs – it’s yours. Your electorate’s in the House. Your state or territory’s in the Senate.

But absent politicians don’t vote. So the less often your MP or Senator is in Parliament, the less often your electorate or state/territory is being represented in Parliament. There is an informal ‘pairing’ system that means, for example, if a member of the Government is absent then a member of the Opposition can be paired with them, which means they also don’t vote and so neither side benefits from the absence. However, since the system is informal, either side can refuse to participate in it.

Wait a minute… what about the Senate?

Although our friends in the UK don’t vote for their upper house – we certainly do! So what happens to attendance figures in the Senate when there’s a close result?

Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate’s attendance figures have remained more or less steady over the years since the start of They Vote For You’s data in 2006, with figures consistently less than those of the House of Representatives. For example, so far in 2017 there have only been three votes with attendance levels above 90%.

We don’t know why your average Senator misses more votes than the average MP. If you ask your Senators, let us know what they say!

Maybe the lower attendance figures are because Government is formed in the House of Representatives and so the Senate can be seen as more of a ‘House of Review’ (putting it nicely) or a ‘rubber stamp’ (putting it less nicely).

Or maybe it’s because senators don’t independently represent their states and so they feel less significant. While only one MP is elected to represent a particular electorate, twelve senators are elected to represent each state and two to represent each territory. And these senators usually belong to parties, which means that they vote with their fellow party members regardless of state and territory lines. As Joff Lelliott wrote for The Drum, “It is laughable to imagine votes in the Senate breaking along state rather than party lines these days” (you could verify whether this is in fact true using the They Vote For You data).

Considering that the Senate was created as a way to represent our state or territory’s interests at a federal level, perhaps it’s time to look again at why we have a Senate and what purpose we want it to play. But that’s a question for another day, and another blog post.

For now, you can go to They Vote For You and type in your postcode to find out your MP’s attendance figures. Then look through our list of senators (sorted by state/territory) and compare their attendance figures. If you’re not satisfied with what you find, perhaps it’s time to contact your representatives and ask them why they aren’t using the vote you elected them to use on your behalf.

 

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Our plan for PlanningAlerts

USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) blueprints, from a 1973 book

USS Enterprise – hopefully our plans are simpler. Image used with thanks under Creative Commons

Today we’re excited to welcome Hisayo Horie to our team. Over the next 3 months they will be working with us to make updating councillor data for Ask Your Local Councillors a breeze. This will breath new life into this important part of PlanningAlerts and will give thousands and thousands more people the opportunity to discuss what’s being built and knocked down in their community with their elected officials. Hisayo will be blogging throughout the project and we’ll be sharing some of those updates here soon.

Recently we’ve also been thinking about other projects we should be focussing on. Our very successful maintenance quarter reminded us that we have a lot of unfinished projects, big and small. This is work that we’ve already decided to do, we just need to get on and do it.

Unusually, an important consideration for us at the moment is revenue-generating work. This is important because we’ve known since the end of the last financial year that we’ll need to find a replacement for a major donation that we’ve been told not to expect this year. We’re also aiming to generate enough additional new revenue for our long-standing goal of hiring a new person.

The two projects that fit these criteria are helpfully also related to PlanningAlerts. We started PlanningAlerts Backers last year as a way for passionate PlanningAlerts supporters to financially back the project. We’ve long been planning some changes to PlanningAlerts commercial API access.

There is just over a month until the new financial year. Around that time we’re planning to review this approach and our plan for the next quarter of 2017. We’ve already had some early success with PlanningAlerts Backers and we’re hoping to get a lot further in the next few weeks with this and our other two PlanningAlerts projects.

Posted in Planning, PlanningAlerts.org.au | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Responses

A great win for Right to Know, FOI and transparency

Ben Fairless is a volunteer administrator of our Freedom of Information (FOI) request site, Right To Know. When the ATO started to refuse valid FOI requests from people on Right To Know he made a personal complaint to the OAIC about his refused request. He has some good news to share!

You may have been aware from previous blog posts that the ATO has been refusing to process valid Freedom of Information Requests requests made via Right to Know since August last year.

In response to their failure to respond to my FOI requests, I made a complaint to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) in my capacity as an FOI applicant. Both I and the OpenAustralia Foundation believe that all Commonwealth authorities have no right to refuse to process valid requests just because they come from Right to Know.

I’m pleased to pleased that I received a letter in response to my complaint from the Information Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim yesterday. Mr. Pilgrim’s letter supports both my understanding and the Foundation’s position; It is lawful to use Right to Know to make FOI requests. He further recommended that the ATO begin processing stalled requests. You can read the entire letter on archive.org.

Some key points of the Commissioner’s decision are:

“Part 3.48 of the Guidelines issued by the Australian Information Commissioner under s 93A of the FOI Act (the FOI Guidelines), to which regard must be had in performing a function or exercising a power under the FOI Act, provide that a request can be posted on a public website and forwarded to a specified electronic address of the agency or the Minister. The FOI Guidelines reference the RTK website in the footnote, as an example of such a website.” [emphasis mine]

In addition, the Commissioner had something to say about the way the ATO requested Right to Know remove an Internal Review:

The ATO did not ask the RTK website administrators to remove the name of the affected ATO staff, instead, it asked the RTK website administrators to remove a request for internal review of the ATO’s FOI decision.

He also went on to say that:

The powers of the Information Commissioner do not extend to the administration of the RTK website.

The Commissioner then issued a formal recommendation:

Under s 88 of the FOI Act, I recommend that the ATO process valid FOI requests made through the RTK website.

I believe this recommendation is appropriate to complete this investigation.

As citizens, we are really lucky to have an authority like the OAIC who are responsible for looking after our Right to Know. This application and process cost me nothing but time, and was simple and straightforward. The OAIC played a vital role in resolving this problem. Without the OAIC I would need to appeal to a more formal body, costing time, money (several hundred dollars to just appeal) and legal fees that would run into the thousands.

I feel that the only thing that could have been improved in this process was the time it took for the OAIC to review the complaint, however I hope that could be addressed with more funding for this important resource.

As volunteers at Right To Know we all work hard to ensure that it is a safe environment, where people can work productively with government on furthering the government’s own goals of being open and transparent, and will continue to do so with the support of this decision. We look forward to seeing the ATO uphold their responsibilities and processing people’s requests via the Right to Know website.

Posted in Announcement, RightToKnow.org.au | 1 Response

Our first ever Outreachy Internship

Today we’re excited to announce that Hisayo Horie will be working with us for the next 3 months in our Outreachy Internship position.

Before we introduce Hisayo, and the project we’ll be working on together, let us tell you a little about how the Outreachy application process has gone since our announcement blog post just six weeks ago.

This is the first time we’ve been part of this program, or any internship program, and we were extremely impressed by the applicants’ skills, determination, creativity, and spirit of collaboration. We’re grateful for their patience with us during the application process and through the wait for this announcement.

42 people contacted us about the program. 20 submitted applications and 8 completed the application process by getting their contributions merged to our projects through GitHub.

A special thanks to Akriti Verma, Anishka Gupta, Ekaterina Semenova, Esther Monchari, Hisayo Horie, Keerti Guatam, Shreya Sonawane, and Tanuja Sawant. Just getting setup to work on our projects can be hard and you all contributed code that’s now running in our projects and improving the experience for thousands of people who use them each day. You should be extremely proud. Thank you!

We were spoiled for choice by these applicants and wish we could offer more than one position for this round of Outreachy. The applications were thoughtful and presented a great range of skills and experience. A number of our applicants are leading projects to share their skills and fight marginalisation in their local areas. Everyone took feedback constructively through the process and we saw rapid improvements in applicants’ code quality, communication, and understanding of our process.

We hope that the challenging application process was a valuable learning experience for everyone. We’re here to continue giving feedback and merging contributions. To anyone reading, if you’ve been wanting to get involved in projects like ours please check out our good for first contribution issues and you are welcome to contact us directly. These contributions count towards future Outreachy rounds and are a great way to build experience in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Subscribe to this blog for updates about our future Outreachy participation.

Huge thanks to the Outreachy co-ordinators for all their support and advice throughout the application process.

This is the first time Outreachy has included an Australian based organisation and that connection is thanks to linux.conf.au where we heard about the program from Karen Sandler. Another huge thanks to everyone who generously donated to Outreachy at linux.conf.au and to Linux Australia for directing a portion of those funds to our Outreachy position.

We’ll be following up soon with a post about our experience of the Outreachy application process. We’re talking FOSS here so naturally we want to be open and share what worked well and what didn’t.

Introducing Hisayo

Throughout the whole application process we had a great experience getting to know Hisayo, a web developer based in Toronto with a background in environmental studies. Hisayo’s twitter profile says “anything involves storytelling, social justice and technology are my jam”—sounds good to us!

Hisayo selected “Make an easy way for volunteers to contribute information about elected local councillors so we can help people write to them etc.” as their project to work on over the three month program. Our motivation with this project is to support the feature of PlanningAlerts that helps people to write to their local councillors about planning applications. There’s over 5000 local councillors in Australia so it’s not feasible for us to keep the data up-to-date without some serious help from volunteers. Our existing contribution process is way too difficult. We need to make it easy for interested people in an area (PlanningAlerts users for example) to keep their local councillor list up-to-date.

We’ll be working on the project together though the Outreachy Internship period from May 30 to August 30. As always we’ll be looking to deploy something useful as quickly as possible and then iterate from there—expect to see lots of updates if you’re following along.

Like all our top applicants Hisayo’s code contributions made solid improvements for the people using our projects. Hisayo went even further by deeply exploring the problem that their chosen project aims to fix. They asked lots of questions and updated the local councillor information for Victoria’s Yarra Ranges Shire Council.

On top of this, Hisayo has a background in activism against the exclusion of citizens from democratic processes, a problem PlanningAlerts aims to respond to. Hisayo’s application eloquently articulated how specific groups of people are marginalised from local planning processes in Toronto. These same issues exist in Australia.

Hisayo even pushed the project further by proposing we “diversify the data from the beginning, not as an afterthought”:

Diversifying data, for me, means inviting in people who are historically marginalized and excluded from conversations around technology and information, and intentionally building data structures that reflect those voices and lived experiences.

Hisayo is really thinking about how the design of technology impacts society. We’re excited to learn from Hisayo and see these ideas implemented in this project. The FOSS world will greatly benefit from having more people like Hisayo leading the way. It’s our pleasure to get to play a part in that.

Hisayo will be sharing their ideas and experiences through fortnightly blog posts as part of the Outreachy program. Subscribe to stay in the loop.

Posted in Announcement, Outreachy, PlanningAlerts.org.au | Tagged , , | 1 Response

They Vote For You: “dishonest”?

A common query we get over email or social media is how we choose what bills appear on They Vote For You and why we don’t just include every bill that passes through Parliament. Occasionally, these queries are accompanied by accusations of dishonesty, inaccuracy, bias and more.

As much as I’d love to dismiss these accusations outright, the fact is that there is a problem with the voting data that’s available in Australia – a problem that we’ve discussed on this blog before (including why a policy you care about may not be on the site).

The problem in a nutshell is that They Vote For You uses parliamentary voting data, but right now our Parliament only records data for formal votes (known as divisions). This is despite the fact that the majority of votes in Parliament are actually made ‘on the voices’, which is when our Members of Parliament (MPs) and Senators shout ‘AYE!’ or ‘NO!’ and whichever side shouts the loudest wins.

In other words, right now we have no record of how our representatives are voting most of the time, and so have no way to hold them properly accountable for their actions.

Whole bills can and do pass through Parliament without any voting data being recorded, which means they won’t show up on They Vote For You at all.

This is a serious problem that needs to be solved.

One possible solution would be for Parliament to introduce electronic voting so that it can maintain a full voting record without slowing up procedures too much. We even wrote to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure about this last year when they were holding an inquiry into electronic voting. But their response wasn’t promising.

If you agree that we should have access to a full voting record – rather than just part of the story – you can write to your representatives yourself and ask them to support the introduction of electronic voting. Or maybe you have other ideas about how to hold them properly accountable. If so, we’d love to hear from you.

How do you think we can make our representatives more accountable for how they vote in Parliament?

 

And Remember! They Vote For You can be edited by anyone – including you! Simply sign up and start editing.

 

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CSO Review of Australia’s First OGP National Action Plan

The Open Government Partnership was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. The primary mechanism of the OGP for supporting domestic reformers to secure open government reforms is the development and implementation of National Action Plans by member countries. The Civil Society Organisation Review outlined here was designed to support the rigorous and comprehensive scrutiny of an action plan by civil society. More about the CSO Review at ogpreview.org

On behalf of the Australian Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network, I asked to lead an Independent Civil Society Review of Australia’s first Open Government National Action Plan.

Involve.org.uk will publish full results in due course, where scoring each question is weighted to ensure that each is given the worth it deserves. Today I’ll just run through an overview of the process, & share some first impressions.

 

That Civil Society Review is now underway. Its is a parallel, independent assessment of the ambition and openness of the NAP. It is not part of the official Independent Reporting Mechanism. The review may be taken into consideration by the IRM researcher.  A number of other countries have chosen to participate in this parallel process, to facilitate learning and improvements during and OGP cycle. For Australia, this review’s timing happened to be just we launch into implementation of the NAP, a perfect time to build in commitment details that will keep the NAP on course to deliver tangible measurable benefits to citizens.

 

The review has three steps, the first of which has just been completed:

Step 1. A lead civil society organisation (lead CSO) conducts a preliminary review. In Australia’s case that’s the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network. We asked those who’ve participated to share their experiences via a survey. We report on first impressions from 7 civil society respondents below.

 

This preliminary review has three sets of questions (about 70 questions all up)

  • Assessing the process of developing the National Action Plan
  • Review the quality and ambition of the Action Plan (reviewing 5 randomly selected commitments)
  • Evaluating the National Action Plan as a Whole

Respondents answered multiple choice responses, and made comments on in each section.  Contributions came from 7 Civil Society members, including 4 CSO IWG members.  

 

Right then, here are those initial impressions.

 

Assessing the process of developing the National Action Plan

PM&C were commended for responding positively in August to CSO representation that a formal dialogue mechanism was necessary to progress the plan. The PM&C team showed a willingness to take on board feedback on improving OGP consultations. However, no explanation or reasons were given for rejection of public input.

 

Review the quality and ambition of the Action Plan

Five commitments selected at random. These were 1.3, 1.4, 3.1, 4.1 &  5.2, covering themes of extractives transparency, corporate corruption, high value datasets, election & political integrity, & participation in government decisions. Assessors reviewed commitments for quality and ambition. On average, scores sat between ‘somewhat’ and ‘moderately’ successful in each of the criteria assessed for development and ambition. Commitments on the whole were found not to be sufficiently challenging, and comments on commitment details suggest that the plan shows some repeat of existing work, commitments were vague, lack stretch goals and committed only to broad outcomes.

 

Evaluating the National Action Plan as a Whole

PM&C team were commended for taking on board feedback in the consultation process and their hard work on improving OGP consultations within constraints. Most commitments were welcomed, and are described as showing potential for ambition. Concern was expressed where key elements of OGP spirit are missing. For example beneficial ownership register that isn’t public. It was not clear whether reforms sufficiently align with the bigger Government policy agenda, for departments to drive change. Lack of public high level ministerial support for Open Government agenda was also noted. Establishing an MSF with good Terms of Reference for genuine collaboration was described as important.

 

Step 2. The preliminary review will be shared with other CSOs and the government point of contact for comments. 

 

Step 3. Based on the comments received, the review will revised by the lead CSO. The lead CSO has discretion to respond to comments as they see fit. The completed review is then published, along with the comments.  

Prepared by: Kat Szuminska on behalf of the Australian Open Government Civil Society Network

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Join us for a 3 month, paid, full-time internship and start transforming our democracy

Photograph of people of The OpenAustralia Foundation team and contributors redesigning street development notices at the Frontyard Hackfest 2016
The OpenAustralia Foundation team and contributors redesigning street development notices at the Frontyard Hackfest 2016. Photo by Lisa Cross

Are you passionate about open source technology and improving our society? Come work on the OpenAustralia Foundation’s open source projects and learn how to fix bugs in Australia’s democracy with a paid, full-time, and remote Outreachy Internship from May to August this year.

Outreachy Internships are a way for newcomers from underrepresented backgrounds to get experience contributing to free and open source software projects by doing paid, full-time work:

Currently, internships are open internationally to women (cis and trans), trans men, and genderqueer people. Additionally, they are open to residents and nationals of the United States of any gender who are Black/African American, Hispanic/Latin@, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. We are planning to expand the program to more participants from underrepresented backgrounds in the future.

We’re looking for someone who:

  • has experience building human-friendly software;
  • has experience doing Ruby on Rails development; and,
  • wants to make our democracy more open and inclusive.

Over the course of the internship you’ll receive US$5,500 (currently about $7100 Australian Dollars) from the Software Freedom Conservancy who coordinate Outreachy.

Key dates

  • April 13: Deadline for applications (extended from March 30 as we’ve join the program late)
  • May 4: Outreachy announce the accepted participants
  • May 30 – August 30: Internship period

Outreachy Mentor

We’re a tiny team (4 staff and a dozen or so contributors), and we work very collaboratively. You’ll be in contact with most of us (including the Henare Degan and Kat Szuminska) in our Slack channel during the internship, but your main contact and mentor will be Luke Bacon (me). Here’s my contact details:

You can also contact our whole team via email with contact@oaf.org.au. Email us for an invite to the Slack channel.

Applying

  1. Read the rest of this post.
  2. Check out our projects list and see if there’s something you’d like to work on with us for three months.
  3. Read through the Application Process guide.
  4. Pick a small, introductory contribution to make and make a Pull Request to our project with your contribution. At this stage you might want to email us or join our slack channel to ask questions. We have a GitHub Issues label “good for first contribution”. Use that list to find something that interests you and would involve related skills to the project you’ve selected.
  5. Submit your application to Outreachy following the instructions here https://wiki.gnome.org/OutreachProgramForWomen#Send_in_an_Application.

Tips for your application:

  • Tell us about the projects you’ve worked on and your programming experience.
  • Tell us why you choose us and the specific project you want to work on. What do you want to learn and achieve through this program?
  • Link to your merged Pull Request (which is a requirement to be considered for the internship). Be available and responsive through the application period so we can help you improve your application.

We’re here to help if you have any questions. Email us on contact@oaf.org.au .

Why Outreachy?

Many groups of people are excluded from participating in Australia’s democracy along lines like their gender, ethnicity, age, wealth and sexuality. Our projects need to be useful to those people as they participate and lead or we’re just reinforcing the existing concentration of power. We need a team with a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives to build tools that can do this. Outreachy is the perfect fit for us to find someone who wants to join our team, get to know them, and train them up in our approach.

We’re also very passionate about open source as an approach and we rely on free and open source software (FOSS) to do our work. All our projects are FOSS and we try to be an example of how an organisation can be open about it activities and decision making. Outreachy is run by people working on great FOSS projects and we actually use a number of participating organisations’ work. It’s a pleasure for us to get to help someone start contributing FOSS and be part of Outreachy.

Working with us

The OpenAustralia Foundation aims to transform our democracy by giving all Australians the tools they need to effect the change they want. We create simple technologies that encourage and enable people to participate directly in the political process on a local, community and national level.

In working on our projects you’ll be constantly chiseling away the complexity of government bureaucracy and allowing citizens focus on the things that matter to them. This isn’t easy. We need to constantly advocate for citizens and their right to know and participate.

The Outreachy Internship is a remote program–all the communication and collaboration happening online. This is how most open source contribution works, and we’re a completely remote team ourselves. Most of us live and work from different parts of the east coast of Australia. You’ll get a travel fund to meet the team as part of the program. We’re generally working and responsive between 10am and 6pm Monday to Friday AEDT/AEST.

All our project communication happens in GitHub Issues and Pull Requests and in our Slack channel where our team and volunteers chat while they work. We generally try and keep everything in Github, but if you’d like to join us in Slack to ask questions and get to know our Outreachy mentors don’t hesitate to email us for an invite contact@oaf.org.au. We have a #hackerspace room for letting people know what we’re hacking on and asking questions. There’s also #townsquare for general discussions and introductions.

Before applying

Posted in Announcement, Outreachy | 9 Responses

OpenAustralia Foundation and Open Government Next Steps

A fortnight ago, I outlined what the OpenAustralia Foundation team has been up to, in helping land Australia’s First Open Government National Action Plan (NAP).

In December 2016, Prime Minister and Cabinet’s office announced Australia’s first National Action Plan (the Plan, or NAP) complete with 15 reform commitments.

To help make sure we give Australia’s Open Government reform commitments the best chance of success, that they retain their ambition, are relevant and are successfully rolled out, it’s vital that civil society stay closely involved. I’ll continue to work with the Interim Working Group and Australian Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network Steering Committee (at least until the transition & election respectively, and if selected/elected, beyond that), to help both groups evolve.

Working with the Interim Working Group

The current Interim Working Group was appointed by the Federal Government last year. This group now has to perform a couple of big infrastructure ‘build the plane as we’re flying it’ maneuvers, in true OGP spirit the IWG has to Establish a way for Government, civil society and non-government stakeholders to meet regularly and work together effectively. This is the focus of reform commitment 5.1, designing a multistakeholder forum that has the agency and capacity to oversee the National Action Plan. The due date on creating that forum is the end of March, less than a week away. Our current working group doesn’t meet again until the end of March. The OGP Multistakeholder Forum handbook outlines an example (and quite ambitious) timeline, setting out activities for developing a forum is 8 weeks. So even if we kicked off at that next meeting and used this template, we’d still looking at June completion at the earliest.

from the OGP’s helpful Designing and Managing an OGP Multistakeholder Forum

 

Working on Specific Commitments as a leader of a Civil Society Organisation

The Interim Working Group remains responsible for overseeing 15 Open Government reforms. There are also important roles for Civil Society Organisations and other non-government actors to play here. The IWG will help ensure that government agencies leading each of the commitments identify these groups. Charities, smaller Non Government Organisations, grassroots, and informal community groups, all have enormous experience and deep insights into problems that this National Action Plan seeks to solve. Successful partnership between civil society and government is essential to the OGP’s platform for action.

To begin with

  • Work with Department of Industry and Innovation on Commitment 5.1 Beginning the next steps with a meeting between Department of Industry and Innovation representatives, Peter Timmins and me last week.
  • Help make sure that the reforms which the Government committed to in the Action Plan progress in a spirit of openness, transparency, accountability, and participation. For example we might spend time translating some of the documentation, as we did with the Manifesto. Or, people might find it interesting to see who voted for parliamentary reforms in light of the government’s commitment 4.1 Confidence in the electoral system and political parties. We may want to look for evidence in how we see FOI requests made, and make recommendations on the reform commitment 3.1: Information management and access laws for the 21st century

There are a bunch of commitments that are closely connected with the work that the OpenAustralia Foundation do, in opening up government. We’ve previously written about, gathered data, and provided evidence on issues that are part of this reform agenda. Also, as part of this Open Government National Action Plan, we’ve drafted, contributed to, commented on, solicited and provided feedback for commitments that form our National Action Plan. We’re also a tiny team. We have to focus our work on where we can be most helpful and effective. As luck would have it, the timing of our next planning meeting couldn’t be better, it’s on Monday. We’ll review this work then.

We’ll look at our objectives, how we can best connect with Australia’s involvement in the OGP along side all our other work. I expect to report back here next week both from OAFs’s planning meeting on Monday, and that I’ll have good progress to report from the Interim Working Group’s next meeting on Tuesday.

If you’re in Sydney on Tuesday, consider coming along to our next pub meetup.

As a Member of the Civil Society Network

The steering committee for the Australian Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network (aka. AOGPN or the Network) was brought together quickly. This pragmatic and cooperative group adapted the UK network’s open model & resources to establish the Network quickly.

Now the first National Action Plan is underway, there’s little time to regroup, to reflect and to evolve. Initially formed in November 2015, the steering committee committed to hold elections within 18 months of forming the network.

  • Attract and elect a new steering committee.

The Network is now actively looking for strong Civil Society leaders to nominate for the Steering committee to come forward. Nominations due in by end of March.

I’ve put my hand up.

  • Clarify identity – what do we mean by Civil Society?
      • Figure out where the network stands on what constitutes a member of ‘civil society’ that the group agrees to work with.
  • How do business people fit into this model?
  • Clearly communicate with members and public
    • the definition of civil society the group is working with
    • Terms of membership
  • Increase diversity of members to better reflect the diversity of our communities in Australia.
  • Consider whether and how and when to become a formal entity
  • Grow membership sustainably (compare with UK civil society network rate of growth)

As a representative of this lead Civil Society organisation, I’ve been asked to assess OGP NAP work to date this week. I’ll pull the final report together with colleagues from the Network steering committee tomorrow, and then present this initial review through involve.org.uk’s Civil Society review tool.

One of the strengths of the Open Government Partnership is the Independent Reporting Mechanism, and while the Civil Society review isn’t part of that formal review, its great to have an opportunity to provide early feedback, and opportunities to apply some corrections as we get into the implementation phase. Down the track, this parallel report might also be taken into consideration by Australia’s independent OGP reviewer.

Independent monitoring Provides input on the government self-assessment report and the Independent Reporting Mechanism research process; work with civil society partners to comment on these reports and/or prepare a parallel, independent assessment of the OGP”.

Find out more about civil society engagement on the OGP’s website.

See how other countries fared in the last Civil Society roundup

 

Here’s looking ahead then to an elected (and refreshed) steering committee for the Network.

By mid-Winter Australia the IWG might even hope to establish the first iteration of a Open Government multistakeholder forum, driving this Open Government agenda, collaboratively, full speed ahead.

Posted in Open Government Partnership, OpenAustralia Foundation, Planning | Leave a comment

Making your emails faster and more secure

Last week we made a couple of changes that make your PlanningAlerts emails more responsive and a bit more secure. They’re great examples of the kind of improvements we’d usually struggle to find to the time for, were it not for our maintenance-focussed start to the year.

Screenshot of email confirmation page from PlanningAlerts

We ask you to confirm your email in PlanningAlerts

When you sign up for an alert or create a comment on PlanningAlerts we send you a confirmation email to make sure it’s really you signing up or commenting. No one likes waiting around for a confirmation email so it’s important we send these really quickly.

While we were helping someone with an unrelated PlanningAlerts question we noticed that email confirmations were taking up to 2 minutes to be sent. That’s not very snappy!

The problem was that we’ve now got so many people signed up to email alerts that these confirmation emails could sometimes get stuck waiting behind those regular alert emails. We’ve now created a dedicated queue for confirmation emails so they arrive quick-smart.

Screenshot of broken padlock in Gmail

This is what PlanningAlerts emails in Gmail used to look like

Last year Gmail introduced a scary looking red broken padlock symbol to indicate if a message you’ve received was encrypted in transit or not. We’ve now switched on opportunistic encryption with our email service, Cuttlefish, so that all messages from our services like PlanningAlerts are protected in transit.

This means that if anyone is snooping on the traffic between us and your email provider they won’t be able to read the content of the messages we’re sending you. Plus there’s no more scary broken padlock symbol in Gmail.

Emailtastic.

Posted in Development, PlanningAlerts.org.au | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

OpenAustralia Foundation and the Open Government Partnership Experience

Back in 2013 I tagged along invited myself to the Open Government Summit. At the time, I expected that Australia would officially announce we were joining the Open Government Partnership. At this summit in London, thousands of people from Civil Society and Government were working together on making life better for people in their countries.

The opening plenary session set the scene, the UK’s Special Minister for State, Francis Maude, addressed a packed hall of people from Government and Civil Society together, leading on “ Transparency is an Idea whose Time has Come”.

I hadn’t ever heard such a solidity to those words before. I saw and heard arguments made so very clearly of the benefits to people, to societies and even to economies. He presented Open Government Partnership as a truly an international platform that could elevate expectations from Government and of Civil Society.

 

Australian didn’t show up for Open Government that day. In the midst of positive energy and a throng of high level political support on show, I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed.

The British Prime Minister and outgoing Government OGP co-chair David Cameron went on to share “you can now map the crime of streets, the standards in your schools, the performance of your hospitals,you can see the businesses and people who Government meets with names and roles of senior civil servants, not to mention the pay of most of our top officials” before going on to announce yet more reforms, a couple of which we’re yet to dig into, including “a register of beneficial ownership that is open to the public” The Prime Minister clearly articulated the case for that register to be public. “Together we can close the door on shadowy corrupt practises.” he concluded.

And that was just the opening of the summit.

Three years and a change of Australian Prime Minister or three later, Malcolm Turnbull gave the fires of Open Government Partnership another little prod. It would take a bit more stoking than he seemed prepared to give it.

Without any big announcements or visible high level support, it was hard to imagine how a series of potentially transformative reform commitments would be crafted or co-created.

Why The OpenAustralia Foundation Dived In

We see OpenAustralia Foundation values aligned with the Open Government movement, and thought about how we could help in practical ways.

  • Working with Government to extend the public servants’ comfort zones in the open Government space and encourage greater ambition. This includes:
  • Helping people understand that the OGP is about practical improvements in people’s lives not just Open Government philosophy & largely about Open Data.
  • Advocate that Government include commitments beyond the two themes they initially offered back in November 2017  and further out than Open Data alone. Those themes were:
    1. Improving public services
    2. More effective Use of Public Resources

In particular we saw a disconnect between perceptions of public integrity and the opportunities to improve accountability and transparency for public officials.

We came up with a goal that would express what we wanted to do & how we might go about it.

  • Help create The Best Possible National Action Plan (NAP or The Plan)  We’d aim to do this within the boundaries of that comfort zone, and maintain the integrity and spirit of the commitments as far as possible. Included in this is we aimed to promote clear communication of the plan, the commitments and opportunities for people.
  • Look for ways to increase diversity of voices contributing to discussion, to increase interest and awareness in the Australian Open Government Partnership Network so that this group would get stronger, reflect a broader number of communities of interest, and for The Best Possible National Action Plan

The OpenAustralia Foundation worked as part of the independently formed Civil Society focussed Australian Open Government Partnership Network (AOGPN or ‘the Network’) interim self appointed Steering Committee. I put in an expression of interest and was both honored and flabbergasted to be invited to be one of six Civil Society members of the Interim Working Group (IWG or the Working Group). We’d participate alongside six senior public servants in meetings to discuss what would become Australia’s first Open Government National Action Plan. Between us, we reached out to Civil Society Organisations, individuals, business people, consultants and other non-government actors, the Government and the public to get input into and improve Australia’s first action plan. 

Through the Working Group, Civil Society had a more formal opportunity to connect with each other as well as with Government, to work on these opportunities.

Now we can say that the Government presented a more ambitious plan following working with them, with greater scope and ambition than the Government initially proposed. However, commitments did not go as far as the reforms people who participated called for (see both the Manifesto and Wiki where the initial team at PM&C collected ideas). 

Some things we did that were effective towards these goals

  • We created a solid home for the Australian Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network online, a starting point for people to find out about the Open Government Partnership at opengovernment.org.au including brand ID, content design, strategy & delivery.
  • Represented broad Civil Society interests, in the Working Group and Network Steering Committee
    • Popularising use the words/concepts of Civil Society and participation which led into them being more acceptable in discussions and then into the action plan. Members of Network and others who initially shied away from the terms, then stood up for its use down the track, and these little words became part of IWG meeting vocabulary.
  • Contributed substantially to two commitments on Participation
    • Participation in Government decision making (we led this one)
    • Including Ongoing Dialogue mechanism as a commitment
  • Via membership of Interim Working Group and public submission
    • provided input to specific commitments, including:
      • OGP process on extending “trust” commitment including submission to OGP on privacy was effective. The commitment about trust now acknowledges that it’s not just about people misunderstanding, but that there are real privacy problems that need to be solved. Via submission/blog post and advocacy in IWG meetings.
    • In all commitments:
      • Advocated for Civil Society to be included and leading actors named as a starting point, to ensure this didn’t drop off as we got into the process of implementation (still working on it)
  • Via membership of Interim Working Group, Questioning, “early and often”, assumptions made about how the process would run, what would be included. At the same time, working constructively and ‘picking battles’ to shift away from an inexorable slide to ‘business as usual’ with ‘the usual suspects’. This was a learning curve. It’s important this continue.

 

Making reforms easy to understand, and tell people about them

  • We produced the Manifesto, an easy to read document, drew attention to reasons for each proposed reform, gave an outline in plain language, and explained the local context. 
    • This resource was reused and referred to by the Government, and their consultant for engagement, both Government and Civil Society members told us that they found this immensely useful. I don’t think the volume of people looking at this document online reflects the influence and interest reported to us. We can look at how many of the proposal from the Manifesto into The Plan, but not establish causal correlation.
    • Helped other Civil society members of OGP understand the need to talk about this work from community’s perspective.
    • Led language used, so it’s easier for people to understand
  • Encouraged and supported Network/Steering committee/Working group members to write and share through the Network blog on important and potentially transformative commitments. 
  • Ran Social media awareness/engagement campaign to make the most of short window of opportunity presented at short notice, for 2 week public input to the plan.

 

Social Media: Twitter Report 

At the start of October 2016 the @opengovau had around 130 followers. By mid December 2016 @opengovau had over 400 followers.

When compared to other main social media influencers on the issue of the Open Government Partnership, @opengovau was ranked in the top ten influencers, ranking two spots below @opengov, a Twitter account run by the U.S. State Department. This was despite @opengovau having less than 1/8th the social media followers than any other account in the top ten group of social media influencers on the Open Government Partnership in October 2016.

https://twitter.com/Asher_Wolf/status/807080165352161280

 

Between October and November 2016, the @opengovau received 246.9k impressions over a 28 day period. The number of people visiting the @opengovau profile rose by 963.2%.

by @Asher_Wolf

 

We learned something about Relationship Building for Practical Outcomes

When we had the first Network meeting, at least one person involved said they couldn’t see the point of the OGP, and many other people just ignored it. A year later, they were among a still small but more diverse group of voices and interests, expressing frustration and interest passionately with “why am I only finding out now?” or “why didn’t I know about this?” via twitter. Some of those we reached later in the piece contributed to formal process and others didn’t. It’s important to pick up with those who expressed an interest and understand how they might get stay actively interested and get involved in future.

  • On twitter, website, discussions, public information sessions acted as trusted Civil Society conversation facilitator, and occasional interpreter and peace-keeper.
      • Turning up and engaging was huge factor – if we don’t do it, then who is going to? How would this have looked if we hadn’t?
      • Staying publicly calm and working with and through tensions in Civil Society, staying the course with Government, Civil Society and public. By working positively with the passions of complainants, a couple of complainants were moved to become contributors to the action plan. Win!

 

We learned that some things we did that weren’t so effective, and identified areas to work on if and when we continue this work. Fortunately this is an iterative process, and includes lots of scope for reflection, learning and iteration.

  • I (Kat) didn’t write down what the aim of the project was and blog this at the very beginning.
  • Some outside the Network were not aware of the rules of joining the Network and so thought there weren’t any. Great feedback for an organisation promoting accountability.
  • Group discussion platform wasn’t widely used. We set up discussion groups around themes that were then not used very much. Nominated discussion leaders didn’t lead or discuss the issues widely, or invite others to participate publicly to any great extent- what would it take for that to happen? What was missing? Talk to them about this? What was the experience for them? This is a question the incoming steering committee will need to discuss.  Ongoing active community management is needed, who should do this?
  • In future we might be more specific about who takes on the roles organising conversations within the (bigger) communities of interest, and measure the extent that influential Civil Society and large networks engaged with the process.
  • Creating an easy form to help people assess the Plan’s commitments. As a first iteration, this was a nice simple format. I didn’t successfully roll this out as a campaign broadly. The community wasn’t there and the questions floated beautifully in space.
  • We put up a facebook page up but then didn’t activate it, or build community around the issues.
  • Building community is an ongoing process and start stop campaigns will be much less successful unless there are community leaders around each area of focus.
  • Network steering committee membership
  • Engaging as a Civil Society member on the Interim working group didn’t have terrific ongoing feels, especially the stop start, hurry up and wait, lack of openness and tired formal processes. I felt it worthwhile to be part of a group that helped stretch ambition in the Plan.
  • Henare and Luke worked really effectively and sensitively to support Kat work with difficult Civil Society conversations. There’s definitely a case for capacity building with all participants, beginning with those leading proceedings, to help make sure that we can have open, frank and respectful conversations as we dive into difficult territory.
  • Providing mediation where there was conflict in highly visible discussion is difficult and stressful to deal with diffuse and reach a positive outcome for everyone
  • It‘s hard to know whether some activities were effective, some necessary to be part of the group that had input to turn up, to be. To be seen as a helpful actor in the process doesn’t show tangible outcomes but was vital in getting to them.
  • OGP review times and iterations are out of whack with small steers that can help during any given OGP (2 year) iteration. It would be great to see if there are more supportive tools that help keep commitments on track, true to their spirit, and steadily towards tangible outcomes for people.

And a final note, the next Plan’s due in 2018 and if you ask me, we can’t start working on that too soon.

Time and money we spent on all this.

We measured the time we spent on this in freckle, mostly*, 753 hours between 5 contributors, me (Kat), Micaela, Henare, Luke, Asher and Matthew.

 

753 Total hours costed by OAF accounts time spent to cost to business $50/hr $37,650 

Of which $30,100 from OAF funds, and 3 contributions from Transparency international totalled $7550

I travelled to London Summit at my own expense, and stayed courtesy of OGP Support Unit with another delegate. Return flights to Canberra to attend IWG meetings (which were sometimes catered) organised by PM&C, and travel to information sessions in Perth and Canberra as CSO rep for IWG I expect to be covered by Transparency International.

Of course, this is an incomplete picture, of a tiny fraction of work by so many people who do not work for the OpenAustralia Foundation and contributed an immense amount to the production of Australia’s first National Action Plan.

 

Image Credits:

Thanks @asher_wolf for generating the report, Mel aka @nookstudios’ Path of OGP

Posted in Open Government Partnership, Uncategorized | 1 Response
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