Max Rashbrooke on how to make government more open

Last Tuesday night was an interesting time to publish a report on ways to make New Zealand’s government more transparent, participatory and corruption-free. As I stood up to launch my report Bridges Both Ways, I was aware that scandal was swirling around National MP Todd Barclay, and that Barclay was at that moment a sort of Schrodinger’s parliamentarian, in an indeterminate state between being an MP and not being one.

As it turned out, Barclay continued to be an MP that evening, but effectively gave up the fight the next day. It was a stark reminder that New Zealand is not immune to experiencing highly unethical behaviour by its parliamentarians, even if this one was ultimately punished, after a fashion.

Last week also provided news of a yet more serious bent, with the revelation that Transport Minister Simon Bridges is under investigation over claims his office inappropriately tried to block the release of information about an Auckland rail project. I say even more serious because, although Barclay’s actions are more troubling, taping of MPs’ staff is presumably not widespread, whereas it is well acknowledged that circumvention of the Official Information Act (OIA) is.

One of the main reasons for launching my report, commissioned and published by the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, is to push back against the complacency that surrounds New Zealand’s attitude to government openness. I’m defining openness here in a broad sense to include not just publishing more information, though that is important, but also being more open to the direct participation of citizens, and, through those two channels, ensuring that politics is done with accountability and without corruption.

It’s true that New Zealand scores well on many international rankings of openness. It ranked first in the most recent Open Budget Index, which measures the transparency of central government budgeting, and is currently fourth on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. As part of that, it has high levels of integrity: it regularly ranks first on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and a 2013 review of New Zealand’s systems for ensuring integrity found that there was “very little corruption”.

Those findings are all important, and welcome. But we cannot ignore the fact that there are still serious problems.

For a start, those international surveys, while often complimentary, have also pinpointed major weaknesses: political donations are badly regulated, for instance, and appointments to government boards frequently go to those with strong political connections.

Secondly, we are not making much use of the new technologies that allow deep citizen participation and rapid government action. In Taiwan, for instance, the government responded to the arrival of Uber by rapidly setting up an online consultation using a tool called Pol.is, which grouped respondents and allowed them to refine proposals for regulating Uber until they got 80% approval.

Those proposals were then put to the company in a live-streamed meeting with government officials – and, under such well-organised pressure, Uber caved in on most (though not all) of the public’s demands. It was an ultra-responsive, ultra-nimble piece of democracy – the kind of thing New Zealand should be doing, but isn’t.

Thirdly, international surveys frequently miss what I call cosy-ism: the kind of behaviour that doesn’t involve envelopes stuffed with cash, but does involve lots of jobs for the boys, contracts that don’t go out to open tender, and so on.

The upshot of all this is that we are being complacent about major weaknesses – and those problems are likely to increase as the world becomes ever more connected and complex, and New Zealand does more and more trade with countries with poor records on openness. As Transparency International has pointed out, many of our political arrangement are, if not actually corrupt, then certainly corruptible.

And openness is important not just in fighting corruption. It also makes government more effective: when more people are involved in making decisions, and more voices speak up to challenge claims and produce evidence, the policies that result are generally much improved.

Openness also builds trust between the governors and the governed, and gives political decisions more legitimacy. As the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron has argued, “There is such a degree of substantive disagreement among us about the merits of particular proposals … that any claim that law makes on our respect and our compliance is going to have to be rooted in the fairness and openness of the democratic process by which it was made.”

The increased demands for openness also represent a growing expectation from citizens who, in the digital age, are used to transparency and responsiveness in most aspects of their lives, and increasingly demand it from government.

Not everything in government can or should be open, of course. Some of government’s work needs to be carried out in confidence, especially when national security is at stake. Working in this way may also allow officials to take more (justified) risks in the earlier stages of developing policy. But a shift towards more openness is still very much needed.

After all, we can’t forget all the political scandals involving the influence of wealthy donors on political parties, or 2014’s ‘Dirty Politics’ revelations. Descriptions of New Zealand as a ‘tax haven’, thanks to our lax approach to foreign trusts, have also dented our international reputation. And we should remember the example of two previously high-performing small countries, Iceland and Ireland, that recently tumbled down the corruption perception rankings, as Transparency International has pointed out, “after the surfacing of scandals arising from underlying governance problems”.

So what can we do about all this? My report has over 40 suggestions, ranging from the well-canvassed to the very new.

We could have a register of lobbyists, modelled on Ireland’s, with a tight definition of ‘lobbyist’ to avoid past problems with attempted reform in this area. We could strengthen the OIA by making the ‘public interest’ part have more weight, bringing more bodies under its scope, and making it clear that ministers’ offices shouldn’t be asked for, or be allowed to give, clearance or approval on requests. We could also make a big shift towards proactive publication of government data – something the State Services Commission (SSC) is already encouraging.

We could have an independent body to oversee political appointments, an end to the ‘gagging clauses’ in public research contracts that stop academics speaking out, and a clear reassertion by the SSC of the right of public servants to be politically active.

On the more far-reaching front, we could create a new national holiday, a ‘Korero Politics’ day, devoted to discussing politics, in order to give people the time and space to engage with the issues. We could get local councils to put up small chunks of their budgets for the public to decide on directly in big town hall meetings.

We could also create an online platform where anyone can propose a bill, and those that get over 35,000 signatures – 1% of voters – have to be debated and voted on in Parliament. Finland does this – that’s how they got their marriage equality law.

We could also level the playing field of political influence by limiting donations to parties to $1,500 per person per year, as Canada does, and turning the current state funding of political parties into a $20 voucher for each elector to give to the party of their choice. That’d give parties a huge incentive to have policies that resonate with the public, as well as cutting off the influence of big donors.

None of these more far-reaching things, admittedly, looks likely to happen any time soon. But that’s hardly surprising when the country is still so complacent about its record on openness. Talking about these issues – and showing people that there are options, and that other countries do some things better – is the first step to puncturing that bubble. After that – who knows? – the space for a major push towards more open and accountable government may just, as it were, open up.