OSACO opinion piece on transparency and open government featured in national media

Jaydene Buckley NZ

The latest Corruption Perceptions Index has been released, and it paints a worrying picture. Not because New Zealand has done badly, but because it could lead to complacency, which is the very last thing we or any country needs right now.

As we know, complacency flourishes in the gap between perception and reality. New Zealanders have a tendency to take the opinion of others about this country as gospel. We simply can’t afford to sit back on the laurels accorded by others.

Typically, Aotearoa New Zealand scores highly on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), and this year is no exception. Aotearoa has achieved a score of 88 out of 100 alongside Finland and Denmark. This is the highest score achieved by any of the countries included. 

But before anyone uses that result to say that corruption isn’t an issue here, there are two important points to remember. Firstly, this is a perceptions index.

Secondly, what matters most is how all countries are doing. In that regard, the CPI shows that control of corruption has stagnated or worsened in 86 per cent of countries over the last decade. Until we significantly reduce corruption everywhere for everyone we cannot pat ourselves on the back.

In New Zealand we need to hold ourselves to account, and that means demanding openness and transparency from government through appropriate means.

When journalists, for example, request information using the Official Information Act, the way in which such requests are responded to shouldn’t be used as a delaying tactic or smokescreen. Information released shouldn’t be redacted to such a degree that it provides no information at all. We can and must do better than that.

In a recent statement the Chief Ombudsman applauded New Zealand’s Global Ranking in the CPI, however he did caution that now more than ever that we need information to flow freely between the New Zealand public and its government.

As we learnt recently , the Ministry of Health failed to follow Te Kawa Mataaho Public Service Commission’s​ commitment to openness and transparency in the provision of public services by failing to be transparent about how it devised its vaccination rollout plan. We now know that it had little to no evidence to support a graph presented by the minister of health in his media conference on March 17, 2021.

We need the government to help citizens understand the basis for its decision-making, and to take us on that journey with it.

In the light of the ongoing pandemic, there is a need for all governments to be transparent about their strategy and the implementation of that strategy. Governments need to acknowledge what is going well and what has not gone well. This builds trust and ensures accountability.

More broadly, open government means transparency whereby citizens have an understanding of how the government works, are able to participate and to influence government through appropriate channels, and insomuch as governments can, demonstrate accountability.

Political systems have typically relied on a certain amount of obfuscation in their “business as usual” operations. This is usually dismissed as “politicking”.

But the world we are currently living in is not business as usual and requires a change in approach.

Governments are allowing themselves a higher level of interference in individuals’ lives in the name of public health, but with that must come greater openness with their citizens who have entrusted government with their lives, livelihoods, and futures.

In our work we are constantly reminded about the importance of policies, systems, and processes that do not allow corruption and other adverse behaviour to flourish. We see the harm that is caused when actions that may seem “small” become big problems. Fraud, dishonesty, and abuse of power often start with seemingly small actions. Similarly government can become dominated by lack of transparency and excessive gatekeeping of information, potentially with aims that may seem worthwhile in mind.

It’s up to all of us to be awake and alert to the small actions and not allow them to erode the open government we all deserve and need. The stakes are high. The actions we take to ensure transparency and accountability and to eliminate corruption must be tangible, lasting and based on more than just perception.

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