Submission from the APS 200 Project on Public Sector Innovation Committee to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner on Issues Paper 1: Towards an Australian Government Information Policy November
This submission is made on behalf of the project committee of the APS 200 project on Public Sector Innovation as part of its consideration of recommendation 2(c) from Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service (Attachment A).
Recognising that no single organisation or country will have all of the capabilities, capacities, insights and solutions to address all of the issues facing contemporary governments around the world, this Project committee agrees with other assertions on the topic that Government, as a primary generator and holder of data, needs to possess structures and frameworks so that external users can collaboratively leverage the data to produce innovative solutions.
The recently released Government 2.0 Taskforce report Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0 highlighted a new direction saying, “Information collected by or for the public sector is a national resource which should be managed for public purposes. That means that we should reverse the current presumption that it is secret unless there are good reasons for release and presume instead that it should be freely available for anyone to use and transform unless there are compelling privacy, confidentially or security considerations which require otherwise.”
In the ‘2010 Declaration of Open Government’, the former Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, affirmed the Government’s commitment to embrace a culture of openness, transparency and increased engagement with the Australian public.
Reflecting this, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Australian Tax Office (ATO), as two of the largest holders of information in Australian Government, have taken extensive steps supporting the reform agenda by committing to the publication of extensive amounts of information held by their organisations (Attachment B).
In the view of the Committee, the ABS in particular is at the fore-front of information publishing and making data accessible to the public. Supplemented by the vast economic information collected by the ATO, the stores of information held and accessible to the ABS is considerable. Therefore, they are naturally placed to play a leading role in setting the standard for all other agencies to follow in information publishing and accessibility.
Notwithstanding the above (and many other) efforts towards greater public access to information held by the public sector, the Project Committee considers that the lack of a formal framework for information exchange between agencies is a barrier to innovation generation, diffusion and utilisation. Current arrangements, which have admittedly served the public sector well in the past, now require examination to ensure that agencies can better benefit from accessing and utilising agency based data holdings. This examination should be comprehensive and ongoing, and should seek to address issues such as ad-hoc inter agency data requests, differing data security classification, and frameworks for making data holdings known to agencies.
A key issue for public sector innovation is a shortfall in interagency collaboration and disclosure, stemming from a tradition of the public sector to operate in jurisdictional silos. Each tier of government has different responsibilities, with each agency possessing distinct and delineated areas of management for those responsibilities. In addition, different cultures, procedures and norms are established at various levels, acting to reinforce those divisions
These divisions can be a significant barrier to sharing knowledge and information and to collaborative action. Compounded by the risk adverse nature of the APS, information is not shared enough between agencies due to lack of precedence and procedure in information sharing.
It is the view of the Committee that there is a broader information failure in regards to data holdings and availability. The lack of detailed knowledge of agency data holdings results in agencies ‘not knowing what they don’t know’. That is, agencies cannot request information that they do not know exists. This issue is particularly relevant to smaller agencies as they often lack the resources and capabilities of larger agencies to investigate and analyse the available data sources held by the public sector.
While there are legitimate reasons for information to not be shared between agencies (e.g. privacy concerns and collection concerns) the Committee believes that more can be done to share information collected by Government agencies.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
“The Information Commissioner and the OAIC will join agencies that are working towards a whole of government approach to information policy and are leading a cultural change towards open government. A particular focus of the OAIC, reflected in this paper, is the need to harmonise information policies and practices as part of the broader drive towards a single coherent government information strategy.”
It is the view of this APS200 Project Committee that the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has a natural role in the implementation of Empowering Change Recommendation 2(c). This fits with the role of the OAIC as the integrated agency to handle information management and independent oversight of privacy protection and Freedom of Information.
The Australian Government Information Management Office’s (AGIMO) role in promoting openness in government and increased online collaboration between government the public as part of the Government 2.0 agenda also links in with implementation of Recommendation 2(c) of Empowering Change. AGIMO’s work in providing whole-of-government leadership and provision of advice in engaging online and releasing government data is pertinent to actioning Recommendation 2(c).
The Project supports the OAIC working with AGIMO to lead discussion in creating a unified policy to better share information between government agencies for policy making purpose.
The Committee notes that the work of the OAIC and AGIMO as stated above would effectively implement Recommendation 2(c) of Empowering Change.
The Information Advisory Committee
The Australian Information Commissioner Act 2010 provides for the appointment of an Information Advisory Committee (IAC).
The role of the IAC is to assist and advise the Information Commissioner in matters relating to the performance of the Information Commissioner functions. The IAC will comprise:
- the Information Commissioner
- senior officers of agencies nominated by the Minister in consultation with relevant Ministers
- other people whom the Minister considers have suitable qualifications or experience
The IAC advises the Information Commissioner, it does not advise the Government directly.
While the formation and functions of the IAC has not been finalised the Committee recommends that one of the possible functions of the IAC is to consider and review existing rationale for data restrictions and support the release of information stocks held by the government. This function would complement the previous recommendation for a unified information sharing policy between agencies.
Issues Paper 1 - Towards an Australian Government Information Policy,
The project supports the Draft principles on Open Public Sector Information in its current form and note that they are highly compatible with actioning of Recommendation 2(c) of Empowering Change. In particular Draft Principle 9 concerning clear reuse rights recognises public sector information to be of economic and social value which ties in with the availability of information supporting innovation.
It is the view of this Committee that these changes will require a shift in culture and administrative practices within agencies. As such, we recommend that the draft principles be supported by concrete initiatives after the final agreement of those principles in order to embed and maintain them within agencies.
Practical guidelines would complement the Draft principles on Open Public Sector Information. We recommend that the OAIC engage with the ABS, the ATO and other agencies as appropriate in discussion on setting some practical guidelines for other agencies to follow in information publishing and accessibility with the aim to raise the release of information standards for government agencies. These principles should be integrated into agencies information management systems and training.
In light of the importance of the availability of information to the Australian innovation system and the current constraints around information sharing within the Australian Government, the APS 200 Project on Public Sector Innovation recommends that the OAIC
1. Together with AGIMO, lead discussion on creating a unified policy to facilitate information sharing between government agencies for policy making purposes; and
2. Through the Information Advisory Committee, have an ongoing role in examining and reviewing rationales for data restrictions where they appear to act as a barrier to innovation, and supporting the exchange of information stocks between agencies; and
3. Work with relevant agencies to produce an implementation strategy for the principles on Open Public Sector Information; and
4. Engage (possibly through the Information Advisory Committee) the ABS, ATO and other agencies as appropriate to develop practical mechanisms for agencies to discover, examine and request interagency data holdings.
Empowering Change Recommendation 2
Flow of information facilitates innovation and is a key to greater innovation in Government. While there will always be some constraints on information sharing in the public sector, the APS should adopt a culture of openness in the development and implementation of government policy. This will require a paradigm shift in the approach of many agencies where much development of new ideas is done in a climate of secrecy. In particular, the APS should adopt innovative practices and increased openness in the development of new policy proposals through reforms such as: …
reviewing the rationale for data restrictions (including by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Taxation Office and other key public data collections) as greater availability of data will drive innovation
ATO – Recent changes to Tax Laws relating to confidentiality of taxpayer information
Like all Australian government agencies, the information held and collected by the ATO is governed by the privacy laws of Australia. In addition, the ATO is restricted in the circumstances it can release taxpayer information by the Tax Laws Amendment (Confidentiality of Taxpayer Information) Act 2010. Recent changes to the Act recognise that the release of information in certain circumstances is beneficial to policy making. The Explanatory Memorandum states at 1.16
… in recognition of the importance that taxpayer information can play in facilitating efficient and effective government administration and law enforcement, disclosures of taxpayer information are permitted in certain specified circumstances. As a guide for future policy consideration, the disclosure of taxpayer information should be permitted only where public benefit associated with the disclosure clearly outweighs the need of taxpayer privacy.
One important change to the law is section 355-65 (7) which allows the ATO to provide protected information (information obtained under a taxation law amongst other things) to the Australian Statistician for the purpose of administering the Census and StatisticsAct 1905.
This section increases the type of information that may be available to the public through the ABS.
ABS – Census and Statistics Act 1905
The Census and Statistics Act 1905 provides the Australian Statistician with the authority to conduct statistical collections, including the Census of Population and Housing, and, when necessary, to direct a person to provide statistical information. The Act requires the ABS to publish and disseminate compilations and analyses of statistical information and to maintain the confidentiality of information collected under the Act.
Section 13 of the Census and Statistics Act provides for the Minister to make determinations providing for the disclosure, with the approval in writing of the Statistician, of information included in a specified class of information furnished in pursuance of that Act. The Statistics Determination is such a determination and provides for the release of a very restricted range of information under special circumstances.
Section 9 of the Census and Statistics Act provides for the Statistician to collect such statistical information in relation to matters prescribed as he or she considers appropriate. Matters in relation to which the Statistician may collect statistical information are prescribed in the Statistics Regulations.
Section 8 of the Census and Statistics Act provides for the Statistician to take a Census every five years. For the purposes of taking the Census, the matters in relation to which the Statistician may collect statistical information are prescribed in the Census Regulations.
Read together the Census and Statistics Act gives the Australian Statistician a wide power to collect a variety of information.
The ABS is very active in publishing information held by their office. Most of the publications on their website are accessible free of charge. The ABS website offers new ways to interact with their data such as motion charts of Australian population projections, and also provide help in finding information, using their information and understanding statistics.
One of the problems identified in seeking information is the situation where an agency does not know what data it needs or whether someone has the data. The ABS is hands-on in tackling this issue and advises people in these situations to the appropriate data stores kept by the ABS or if more detailed data is required, will provide a consultant to discuss more specific needs and advise of the available options. If more detailed information is required, this may incur a cost.
In summary the ABS is actively engaged in publishing and making the information stocks that they hold available to the public and appear to be further along than most other agencies in implementing the open information reforms of the Government. Its role as the official collector of information for Australia, supplemented by the expanded circumstances in which protected information from the ATO can be provided to the ABS makes the agency the first agency to consider when seeking information held by the public service.
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