The de-Claring of more openness – Govt to release Cabinet papers (but with some exceptions)

The most open thing done by Clare Curran, the former Minister for Open Government, was resign, commentator Kate Hawkesby wryly observed in a newspaper column.

Indeed, Curran’s apparent fondness for clandestine meetings and her struggle to explain the extent of her use of a private email account for public business did bring her grasp of the open government portfolio into serious question.

The government’s understandable concern to show it does believe in transparency was reflected today in a decision announced by State Services Minister Chris Hipkins.

Cabinet papers will be “proactively released“, he said, which means they won’t be released (sometimes reluctantly) only in response to requests under the Official Information Act.

The press release from Hipkins’ office declares:

“The move is part of the Government’s wider plan to improve openness and reflects its commitment to the international Open Government Partnership.

“The Cabinet papers will be released no later than 30 business days after a Cabinet decision. This process will be in place for Cabinet papers lodged from 1 January 2019, Chris Hipkins – who is also responsible for Open Government – said.

“This change is about being an open and accountable government.”

There is a caveat:  Cabinet papers will be released within 30 business days of the Cabinet decision “unless there is good reason not to publish”.  

The expectation is that this will make it easier for the public to understand government decisions and bolster the accountability of decision-makers and advisors, although this supposes either that news media make sure their audiences know what’s in those cabinet papers, or that the public show sufficient interest to find out for themselves.

The policy introduces a non-statutory process for providing information, separate to but in the spirit of the Official Information Act 1982, Hipkins said.

Then he added:

“Although we continue to rank at the top of most international measures of trust in government, we can always do better and New Zealanders expect nothing less.

“This change is consistent with the spirit of the OIA which states that information should be made available unless a good reason exists for withholding it.”

“Proactive release of official information promotes good government and transparency and fosters public trust and confidence in government and the public agencies.”

If Clare Curran had preached the sentiments expressed here and practised what she preached, she might still have a ministerial job.

The press statement goes on to advise that individual ministers will have responsibility for releasing Cabinet papers, which will be subject to an assessment to decide if there are good reasons to withhold any of the information.

For privacy reasons Appointments and Honours papers will be excluded.

Proactive release includes publishing a wide variety of official information, without any request from the public and publishing the same or edited information that has previously been released to an individual requester under the OIA.

New Zealand’s draft Open Government Partnership National Action Plan 2018-20 will be released for public comment by the State Services Commission tomorrow.

The draft plan responds to three themes: participation in democracy, public participation to develop policy and services, and transparency and accountability.

Point of Order readers can link here to Cabinet papers related to proactive release and action plan. And we didn’t have to ask for this access.  Whoopee.

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