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Open government in Australia

Open government promotes transparency, citizen participation/collaboration and accountability to produce better governments. Here in Australia we’re making headway in the digital arena to drive positive change and the open government movement.

Alfred D 30 June 2017

What is open government?

There’s a great summary of open government on the Australian Open Government Civil Society Network website, which outlines three key elements for open government:

  1. Transparency — so the public can see exactly what the government is doing, especially in terms of policy, spending and performance.

  2. Participation — involving citizens and other stakeholders in the decision-making process.

  3. Accountability — rules to hold government accountable and ensure government “listens, learns, responds and changes when it needs to.”

Open government in Australia

In December last year, Australia released its first Open Government National Action Plan. This is part of our participation in the Open Government Partnership, a global initiative set up in 2011 (we joined in 2013).

The Open Government National Action Plan covers 15 commitments. These commitments “…will advance transparency, accountability, public participation and technological innovation in Australia over the next two years.” The 15 commitments are grouped into five overarching areas:

  1. Transparency and accountability in business
  2. Open data and digital transformation
  3. Access to government information
  4. Integrity in the public sector
  5. Public participation and engagement

Of particular interest to us, are the three commitments in ‘Open data and digital transformation’ and the final commitment under ‘Access to government information’ (which specifically addresses the need to make use of central portals and digital platforms):

  1. Release high-value datasets and enable data-driven innovation
  2. Build and maintain public trust to address concerns about data sharing and release
  3. Digitally transform the delivery of government services
  4. Improve the discoverability and accessibility of government data

Contributing to the open government movement

While open government is much broader than the digital/tech considerations, the digital elements do play a large role in our national plan. They’re also our area of focus, given we’re in the business of delivering digital services and have a large government client base. So, for us, we see several high-level factors that have (or can) contribute to the open government movement.

Open source

The use of open source is a movement itself within the IT sector, and governments around the world are keen to reap the many rewards of open source, such as:

  • Reduced costs
  • Streamlined IT builds
  • Reduced risks (code has already been tested and used)
  • Collaboration and knowledge sharing

In 2011 the Federal Government released its Open Source Policy, which directed federal agencies to consider open source. We blogged about open source policy in Open source the way forward for government. That blog also looked at the states’ policies on open source.

An example of putting policy into action is govCMS, which uses open source software (it’s based on Drupal) to deliver websites with the benefits of open-source — and lots of other benefits.

At the Federal level we also have the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), which has 13 criteria in their Digital Service Standard, including Number 7 Use open standards and common platforms (using open standards and common platforms will save time and money, and deliver a more consistent user experience) and Number 8 Make source code open (reusing code will eliminate duplication and save time and money).

Open data

Probably one of the biggest, and ‘hottest’, contributing factors to the ICT side of the open government movement is open data. .

A key report on open data was released in May this year by the Productivity Commission and we looked at the draft report in our blog The power of open data. The final report is a major piece of research into open data in Australia — you may like to read the overview for detailed information on where we are now, and how we can make the most out of data in Australia.

We can see open data in action on the National Map, which plots a huge variety of data across a map of Australia — from native vegetation and caves, to bridges, road crashes and local Council boundaries. The CSIRO is also leading the open data charge, with its Data61 research project.

State governments are also committed to the open data part of the open government movement. We blogged recently about the Victorian Government’s endorsement of open data (Open data in Victoria), and all the other states in Australia and the ACT have their own policy on open data and their own dataset repositories.

These datasets are in use during GovHack, an annual event (competition) that lets people loose on government data to come up with innovative apps and websites that use open data.

We’ve come a long way in our use of open data, but we need to continue to innovate in this area.

The cloud

The cloud (cloud-computing) is an important development. A cloud allows you to manage data and programs via the internet, rather than having to store things on your personal network or computer. The DTA recently blogged on what the cloud has to offer government, and the blog mentions benefits such as reduced costs, increased productivity and the delivery of better services. Here at Salsa Digital, we usually use Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) as part of our infrastructure for both corporate and government web projects. It offers increased scalability, flexibility and reliability. AWS serves as the underlying infrastructure supporting all of Salsa Digital's projects to date.    

Citizen-centric

One of the final elements from the open government movement that is addressed in the Open Government National Action Plan within the commitment: Digitally transform the delivery of government services is becoming citizen-centric. This starts us down the track of the citizen-centric push with its mandate to “make government services simpler, faster and cheaper, making it easier for the public to work and interact with government.” This commitment specifically mentions the DTA and the DTA’s  Digital Service Standard.

The DTA itself more explicitly addresses the move to citizen-centric government through criteria number 1 Understand user needs, criteria number 3 Agile and user-centred process and criteria 9 Make it accessible. In addition, the DTA’s first Design Principle is Start with needs: user needs, not government needs. These are all great starting points for designing citizen-centric solutions — you may also like to view our blog Citizen-centric approaches in government.

Salsa Digital’s take

Open government is the way forward in Australia and is also being actively pursued in many other countries around the world. The key tenets of transparency, participation/collaboration and accountability drive policy and action. In terms of the digital areas of open government, Salsa Digital has been actively involved in key aspects — such as open source, open data, using the cloud for delivery and designing citizen-centric digital projects — for many years. We can’t advocate enough for the power of these elements. They deliver huge benefits and will play a key role in the Australian digital landscape.

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