Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Transparency, Policy Effectiveness, and Democracy

One of the reasons I began this blog was my view that greater public transparency in relation to Indigenous policy would itself lead to more effective outcomes. I took the view that it was important to promulgate and analyse the information made available by Government (and the media), and hoped that this would itself contribute to improved policy outcomes.

Transparency allows stakeholders to better understand what government is doing, thus increasing trust and confidence; it provides a disincentive to both government and relevant stakeholders to cut corners, thus leading to higher quality outputs, and hopefully better outcomes; and it facilitates the sharing of information and ideas, thus allowing improved learning across and within sectors.
At a broader level, democracy is built upon a foundation of citizen participation and this in turn requires an informed citizenry. Poor transparency by the Executive arm of Government not only leads to less than optimal citizen participation and thus poor democratic outcomes, but also suggests an ingrained disdain by politicians for sustaining democracy, and thus reflects an ingrained disdain for citizens.

Politicians are paid good salaries, choose their career voluntarily, are provided with multiple supports including staff, access to departments of state and parliamentary resources, and ultimately retire with generous pensions and superannuation. There is an implicit quid pro quo in play: we expect our politicians to support our democracy, not half-heartedly, but whole-heartedly.

It is fair to say that in the year that I have been writing this blog, I have not been impressed with the quality of transparency in evidence in the Indigenous policy sector. Important information is often withheld, or made available in random snippets, or belatedly released, or released in indigestible forms. The Government appears to have no overarching policy framework document for its Indigenous affairs policies in the public domain. Many of the posts in this blog over the past year have noted shortcomings in the Government’s commitment to transparency in relation to particular issues – too many to list out here!

So my interest was piqued (to coin a phrase) when I came across this post by Robin Davies from the Development Studies Centre at the ANU. In essence, he persuasively points to serious shortcomings in the transparency framework operating in respect of Australia’s aid program. And he makes a series of excellent suggestions, which would apply equally well to the indigenous affairs sector as to the international development sector. His post is worth reading in full.

The optimists among this blog’s readers will conclude that this is good news: the Indigenous policy sector is not unique! The pessimists will conclude that is further evidence of the gradual, incremental and apparently inexorable slide away from good public policy in Canberra.

But both optimists and pessimists have cause to worry about the quality of our commitment as a nation to fundamental democratic principles. While our democratic institutions are apparently robust and resilient, they require ongoing sustenance and maintenance, and this requires that citizens continue to trust those institutions have integrity and operate in the public interest. A Government that is not prepared to publish its decisions, to explain how and why it made them, or to justify them in the public domain, is undermining those democratic values and institutions.

Transparency is a key contributor to the maintenance of democratic values, and thus to our nation’s way of life.