There’s been much discussion in the last few days over proposed changes to Australia’s freedom of information laws.
As part of its policy platform announced at the 2007 Federal election, it committed to reforming the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) with the principal objects of promoting a pro-disclosure culture across the Government and building a stronger foundation for more openness in government.
While these reforms won’t have much of an impact at state Government levels (yet), I am in two minds over the following statement made by Senator the Hon Robert Faulkner in a companion guide to the reforms:
Information held by the Government is a national resource and should be managed in the public interest. Access to government information increases public participation, and leads to increased scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of government activity.
The upsides of improved access to information
I am all for the intent of the statement, and there’s been several examples where access to government information has enhanced the ability of citizens to access services and information. One example which springs to mind is the iTT Perth application built for the iPhone platform. Thanks to the Public Transport Authority (PTA) releasing their timetable information in an open format, it has enabled developers to repurpose and reuse this data for the benefit of all.
In the case of the iTT Perth application, the developer has taken the data, ported it to a handheld platform, and added a useful interface over the top to enable easy access to timetable information. The application also leverages the iPhone’s GPS capabilities so instead of having to be at a physical stop to capture the stop number and look it up, it will automatically find the nearest stop and give you the information you need.
Such an application wouldn’t have been possible if the PTA didn’t make it publicly and freely available, and by doing so it has created an environment where innovation can prosper and enable consumer-driven service improvements to be delivered. It showed that consumers who love a specific brand are prepared and will often show their devotion and loyalty to it by enhancing what it does or embracing its value in their own special way – a concept called Lovemarks, which was first put to paper by Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of the global marketing and communications giant Saatchi & Saatchi. Lovemarks has taken on a life of it’s own that the company now refers to itself as ‘the lovemarks company’.
Just the way I’m referring to Lovemarks and Saatchi & Saatchi should give you an idea of just how much I respect that brand and what Lovemarks is all about.
Failing to allow your users to participate and utilise your data can have pretty negative consequences. The most recent and highest publicity failure in this area centered around New South Wales rail provider CityRail threatening legal action against the man who developed the Transit Sydney application. CityRail’s stance was totally against innovation and invention in this field, and it promoted the direct and personal intervention of Premier Nathan Rees to resolve the issue – and it wasn’t any surprise that Rees sides with the application’s developer.
Where could it all go wrong if not done properly?
So those are the positives of innovation, but you might ask where are the negatives of which I referred to.
My role is within an agency who’s primary source of funding comes from it’s day to day business, selling and managing timber assets for profit. Our sole shareholder, the People of Western Australia through the Government of the day. We don’t receive funds from consolidated revenue or taxation, our business and quality of product determines if we survive or fold, and in turn deliver a profit or loss for the people. Thankfully, we’ve returned a profit in nearly every year of operation since establishment, and thankfully our profit goes beyond dollars, but also returns and benefits in social and environmental outcomes – the triple bottom line.
As part of doing business, we have to constantly innovate and and find ways of delivering a better product for both now and in the future. While our innovation is managed and takes place in the public interest, any such changes to FOI legislation must protect both my employer and similar agencies/instrumentalities across Australia who’s innovation takes place in the public interest.
If the changes to these laws are not handled correctly, there is a risk that the work being done for the benefit of all could fall into the hands of some, taking away what benefits could be derrived for everyone and not just a small group of shareholders who’s core focus is on returning a nice dividend check at the end of the year to pay for a summer house and nanny.