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Back to the future: Transparency by design

  • FOI
  • transparency

This blog post was written by Emily Arians, Senior Policy Officer, Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner. The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of OVIC.

Few values underpin the role of governments and the public sector as much as transparency. Genuine and meaningful transparency is an inherent part of the doctrines of representative and responsible government: that governments are elected by the people, for the people and that governments are accountable, respectively.

Meeting community expectations

Existing mechanisms, such as freedom of information (FOI) legislation, Royal Commissions and inquiries and the role of parliamentary committees, as well as emerging concepts such as data ethics and algorithmic explainability, show that expectations of government transparency are only getting stronger. So, why is it that governments are not prioritising (or upholding) transparency? Tight deadlines, the theatrics of question time and, as we saw in 2020, pressure on governments due to national emergencies and global pandemics present some explanations for a lack of transparency to the public.

However, the quality of existing structures and mechanisms may not be the only problem. Victoria’s Hotel Quarantine Inquiry of 2020 recommended clarity “as to the lines of accountability and responsibility…between Departmental heads and Ministers.”1 This finding could be indicative of confusion within existing decision-making structures, designed to ensure government decision-makers are held accountable, and that government decisions are reviewable. Analysis of engagement with FOI law across different jurisdictions has highlighted tactics to potentially skirt around public access rights under FOI2 – denying the public the chance to rightfully critique government decision-making.

Creating a culture of transparency

Failing to see transparency as a cultural issue may be the most pervasive problem. Not only do we need to examine contemporary attitudes toward government transparency mechanisms like FOI,3 we need to encourage public sector leaders to proactively develop and nurture a culture of openness. Although there are many efforts to modernise the way public servants work, such as the introduction of agile methodologies and flexible work, the public sector is a workplace steeped in tradition and hierarchy. If public sector leaders allow a culture of secrecy to remain, or worse, if they actively perpetuate it, this can flow down to the day-to-day work of public servants at all levels.

Enhancing transparency mechanisms

Recent reforms in Victoria reflect the community’s expectation for greater government transparency, including amendments to require local councils to publish a ‘public transparency policy,’ describing how council information will be made publicly available (amongst other objectives).4 Other best-practice examples of transparency measures include requirements to publish Ministerial diaries – to gauge who, or which interest groups, may be influencing government decision-making. While these requirements are currently not in place in Victoria, Ministerial diaries are proactively published for public inspection in NSW, Queensland and the ACT.

Rapid technological change and the promise of data-driven innovation continues to capture governments’ attention. However, when it comes to resetting relationships with citizens into the future, a back-to-basics approach with a renewed focus on existing transparency mechanisms, like engaging with FOI legislation, will be essential in regaining and building citizen trust. The essence of transparency by design is highly compatible with some of the fundamental values of many public servants – integrity, accountability and, of course, transparency.

  1. See, COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, Final Report and Recommendations (December 2020), point 8.4.1, pg. 314:
  2. See, Waller, P., Morris, R.M., Simpson, D. and Hazell, R. 2009, Understanding the Formulation and Development of Government Policy in the context of FOI:
  3. OVIC’s Proactive and Informal Release Project (currently underway) is examining the attitudes toward proactive and informal release mechanisms under the FOI Act across within stakeholders across the Victorian public sector.
  4. See, Local Government Act 2020, s 57.
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