Exposing the myth of open government

Democracy relies on openness, on the fullest possible exposure of government to the public. At its heart is good journalism, such as David Killick’s last week describing some uncomfortable truths about how our state bureaucracy works. Or rather, doesn’t.

Democracy is supposed to put decisions in the hands of elected representatives, but over decades as a public servant I learned that ministers are just government’s very thin surface layer, powerless without the bureaucrats. This is the case for all government, except that in democracy the public is supposed to get a look in.

Public servants are no more secretive by nature than anyone else. But in the top echelons of government service where the big decisions are made, secrecy (they use the euphemism “confidentiality”) can become a habit, to the point where absolutely everything is held close to the chest.

In Tasmania we have an Integrity Commission (IC) which, in its words, is to “prevent and investigate public sector misconduct so you can have trust in government.” It says it is “independent of State and local government, and … outside the control of Ministers or government departments.”

That was the idea when the IC was established by David Bartlett’s government in 2010. It was modelled largely on the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), feared by politicians and bureaucrats alike for its powers to investigate and expose misdeeds. But things haven’t worked out that way.

As Killick reported, the IC found that in 2020 the Department of Health wrongly refused a formal Right to Information (RTI) application by falsely claiming that the requested information – the acoustic design report covering operation of the Royal Hobart Hospital’s helipad – was subject to copyright.

The departmental officer charged with compiling the information didn’t just request copyright advice from the company that made the report, but without prompting invited a negative response: “My view, the report was provided in confidence”. 

The company responded that “there is no contractual obligation for the Department to keep the report confidential” – advice that was allegedly not passed on by the officer (“the Employee”) to the department’s decision-maker, the deputy-secretary, who claimed that not being aware of the company’s original information “led him to make an invalid decision.”

The IC report goes on: “The Deputy Secretary provided evidence that the email was not on the records system and not available to him. This was confirmed by the Employee, who stated that he had not saved the email in question in the records management system, acknowledging it should have been provided to the Deputy Secretary.”

The core evidence in the IC report – that lies were told about copyright and a crucial email was lost – is misconduct and calls for censure, but this should be considered in the context of what else was happening in 2020 when the outbreak of Covid turned the Health Department upside-down.

Worse than the misconduct is the culture of secrecy that lies behind everything that government does, emanating from its topmost parts. Its default response to information requests from an MP (as in this case), or from a journalist, or from anyone else, is to clam up. 

And despite the continuing relentless pressure to consider government jobs as identical to all other forms of work, they’re not, and never can be. Underpinned by the force of law, they carry levels of power and responsibility unmatched by any other kind of employment.

Public office is being undermined at every turn by populist actors intent on subjecting every public officer to the boss’s will – even judicial ones as evidenced at the highest level in the United States. This is something that no citizen of a democracy should countenance or tolerate, for one moment.

Two more discussion points out of this Integrity Commission report, touched on in a follow-up article by Killick, were the way government and its bureaucracy handle RTI requests and the way the commission itself is performing.

Government secrecy is sometimes justified, but in today’s public service secrecy is the default position, where RTI panels appear designed to minimise what the public gets to know. As befits a service funded by the public, the default should be open administration, reflecting a government confident that it’s doing the right thing. 

As for the Integrity Commission, the fact that this simple investigation remained hidden and that it lasted well into its third year brings to mind past criticisms by the Australia Council and former ICAC counsel Geoffrey Watson SC that it’s inefficient, opaque and weak. Which makes government by the people just a convenient myth trotted out at election time.

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