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Poor leadership, tech, hold back Australian open government

Australian Information Commissioner calls for rebuild of data.gov.au

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Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan has released the results of a survey into government attitudes towards, and adoption of, open government and found more needs to be done to embrace the content.

He also calls for a substantial redevelopment of data.gov.au to realise open government policy.

Available here, Open public sector information: from principles to practice is based on a survey of 191 government agencies. McMillan writes that level of response is itself an indicator open government is gathering pace. His key finding from the report is that ”Australian Government agencies are actively embracing an open access and proactive disclosure culture,” and that “widespread and growing use of digital and web technologies to support a [public sector information] PSI transformation is another sign.”

But the commissioner also found “There are nevertheless many policy challenges and practical obstacles that must be tackled. It is more a time of transition than fulfilment.”

Among the challenges identified are the need for “... cultural change, including more active sponsorship of this philosophy by agency leaders; this is particularly important to overcome resistance or disengagement within agencies.” The report also finds “The default position of open access licensing is not clearly or robustly stated, nor properly reflected in the practice of government agencies.” That's meant agencies do what they must, but haven't embraced the concept of open government and gone looking for data to share.

Technology is a problem, as existing systems were not implemented with open government as a use case. Those that are in place “... do not always apply uniformly across agencies; from an open PSI perspective there can be indefensible differences in information management practices across agency branches and locations.”

Other issues include a need to reformat documents before they can be shared, a lack of skills (especially in smaller agencies) and a lack of cash to get the job done. Complying with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 also emerged as an issue for many agencies.

The report therefore makes five recommendations, namely:

  1. Better communication of and education about open government policy, at a conceptual and technical level;
  2. Development of better policy with clearer guidelines so agencies know what is expected of them;
  3. Creation of “a cross-agency forum or working group in which experiences, strategies and resources on open government issues could be shared” to improve collaboration;
  4. “Further investment in existing data sharing infrastructure, particularly data.gov.au”, which the report says could benefit from automation technologies and “Additional resources to facilitate curation and quality control”. The report also suggests an option of “working with State and Territory governments to cross-federate Australian Government data portals, including data.gov.au, should also be explored and supported;
  5. Work in the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector “to improve the openness of GLAM information, data and content.“

The survey was conducted by email, with follow-up interviews in April and May 2012. A preliminary report emerged in August of that year.

Happily, the medium is the message: the Commisioner has published the dataset from which the report was drawn. ®

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