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EXCLUSIVE - Open Government and Open Data initiatives at NSW Information and Privacy Commission

EXCLUSIVE – Open Government and Open Data initiatives at NSW Information and Privacy Commission

At the recent New South Wales OpenGov Leadership Forum, the issue of trust in government came up. There might be a deficit in public understanding when it comes to Open Data and the use of data by government for improving public services.

Elizabeth Tydd, Information Commissioner and head of the Information and Privacy Commission for New South Wales (NSW) tells OpenGov how the Commission is working towards educating the public and wiping that deficit. The agency is championing Open Data and Open Government in NSW.

Ms Tydd talks about the critical importance of having the appropriate, convenient mechanisms in place for accessing information and communicating the existence and operation of those channels to the public.

She also speaks about the ongoing Right to Know Week celebrations (Monday 26th September – Sunday 2nd October) and ensuring compliance with the requirements of the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act).

Can you tell us about your role?

I am the Information Commissioner for NSW. I am also the Chief Executive Officer of the Information and Privacy Commission (IPC), which is an entity in NSW that is established as a one-stop shop to ensure that there is resources and information available, in relation to access to information rights and privacy rights. That information is provided for members of the public and for public sector agencies that are regulated by the information access and privacy legislation in NSW. I am also the inaugural NSW Open Data Advocate.

What are your primary areas of focus?

We have a very worthy, ambitious and exciting program of work that we have established through the IPC business plan for the forthcoming year. It builds on the synergies between being a champion of Open Government and also Open Data Advocate.

Our program of work involves looking at the mechanisms for accessing information, making better decisions around them, and providing that guidance to agencies. It also looks at promotional opportunities to ensure that we are sending a message, that people have a right to know and educational tools to assist with that message and the understanding, not only of information access rights but also Open Data and what that means.

What does Open Data mean to you?

In essence, it is about having ease of access and reuse. It’s on a platform which is freely available, or which is available at the lowest possible cost.

It is information that can be used and reused by other people. So, it is open source information as well.

What are the current initiatives related to Open Data?

One of the features of our program is a review of the legislation that enables members of the public and other agencies to access government information. There is a section of the GIPA Act in NSW that deals with the infrastructure which creates a mechanism for members of the public to access information from the government. They are called Agency Information Guides, which have to contain the agency’s policies, information that has been released through a disclosure log, information about the agency itself, what it does, its services and how it operates.

It’s a legislated right for the public to see that information and they are very powerful tools. We examined them as part of a report published in June this year called, ‘Towards a NSW Charter for Public Participation’.

We focused on the Guides as a tool to ensure appropriate access to information and to stimulate the release of information, because it provides an enshrined in legislation mechanism to allow members of the public to understand how government delivers services and to participate in the formulation of its policies.

We conducted a desktop audit to measure compliance levels of agency information guides and the publication of the report was the first step to stimulate public engagement and assist agencies in better discharging that responsibility.

If you are releasing data sets, it is important to have a path through an Agency Information Guide to provide information in how these data sets can be accessed, either via a data portal that the NSW government runs or to another participating or consultation site that the agency operates.

This gives members of the public greater certainty about how they can access information and where they will find that information. That increases transparency, accountability and stimulates release of information and public participation.

At the federal level also, a number of initiatives are being taken in relation to Open Data? How do the efforts in NSW tie in with those?

Australia signing up for the Open Government Partnership (OGP) means that there is a commitment to an Action Plan. I am also heavily involved in that and it is part of our forward work program. My role on that committee is to represent the states and the territories. We put forward a proposal to look at a set of metrics for how people are accessing information and the committee has endorsed it.

We use metrics that are established. The World Justice Project has measures as to how information access regimes operate internationally. The measures that they look at include the ratio of applications for accessing information per capita, applicant type, measures around how much information was released and what was declined.

That will enable Australia for the first time ever to have a baseline, upon which to measure the effectiveness of our information access regimes and compare that internationally.

Can you tell us about the plans for the Right to Know Week?

Educating the public involves demystifying Open Data and Right to Know Week provides an opportunity to talk about both information access rights and Open Data.

For the first time again, NSW has worked with our state and territory counterparts and we have a uniform commitment to the messages that we are sending for the week. Queensland is taking the lead in terms of the Solomon lecture and Prof. Ann Tiernan’s lecture will be streamed by the other states, including NSW.

We have also provided case studies to showcase Open Government in action. What does it look like, and how is information used to deliver better services, and improve the lives of everyday citizens.

As part of our Right to Know Week campaign we have also launched an infographic to explain what Open Data is.

There are some misconceptions that Open Data might contain individuals’ personal information or material that is secret, confidential or commercially important. Open Data is not that. With the Open Data infographic we are trying to take people on the journey with us to understand that Open Data is open source, it is information that may never have contained secret or commercial or personal material. It may be data around changing traffic lights for example.

However, some data does contain information that might identify someone or reveal something. That data can go through a process that in technology-speak is quite a complex one. It may be subjected to perturbation, aggregation, synthetic data sets, or a variety of de-identification and encryption processes.

That technical language is difficult to understand and comprehend. The infographic more easily explains that through a process of scrubbing, grouping and maybe filtering, we can have Open Data and realise the benefits of Open Data, without compromising any form of confidential material or personal information.

We hope that the Open Data infographic will also reassure the public that government is responsibly managing information and applying technology to achieve positive outcomes.

How do you encourage government agencies to move towards Open Data? Is there any cultural resistance which has to be overcome?

Part of my role as the Information Commissioner and part of the role of the IPC is to also stimulate some of those cultural changes.

The Data Sharing (Government Sector) Act was passed in November 2015.  That’s directed at government agencies, to ensure that they are able to share their information effectively, securely and appropriately. So, that really has galvanised and provided an authorising environment for that data to be shared between agencies. Agencies now have a confidence in working between the various pieces of legislation that they might see as barriers.

It also involves assessing the public value, in other words how is information applied to deliver better services. We have some wonderful case studies as I mentioned earlier. They demonstrate how information is affecting our everyday lives and ensuring that we are able to get to the places we need to be, and that we are equipped and better-informed to make decisions about a whole range of government services.

Let’s look at Consumer Protection. Work is being done at the Department of Finance, Services & Innovation (DFSI). They are releasing data via a complaints register about the performance of traders. The register of traders looks at the number of complaints that have been dealt with within a period of time and ranks them, while recognising that some traders undertake higher volumes of transactions than others.

This register will help consumers to make informed decisions about who they might want to deal with in relation to a transaction, or what other enquiries they might make before they enter into a transaction for the provision of goods and services, making it very tangible for people to see how data can be applied, and ensuring that information is supplied to inform better decisions, deliver better policies and services.

Are there any other projects the IPC has been working on currently?

We recently published an audit of universities’ compliance with contract registers under the GIPA Act.

We regulate five sectors in the IPC. We look at state governments, ministers’ offices, local councils, universities and state-owned corporations in terms of regulation. One of the requirements under the GIPA Act is to publish contracts over a certain monetary value and to ensure that the reporting is available in a timely fashion. The Act also ensures that commercially sensitive information is allowed to be withheld from the contract information.

We looked at publication of contracts at the universities about 12 months ago and we found very low levels of compliance. We found that perhaps the design infrastructure to report on these contracts publicly didn’t meet all the legislative requirements. We also found that operationally it was difficult to ensure that contracts were uploaded in a timely way.

There is great value in ensuring that citizens know how money is being spent. It stimulates business and innovation in the marketplace because it increases competition.

We worked with the universities, who were very willing to engage with us on these issues. There were knowledge gaps in some of the institutions, and we were able to provide guidance around some of the more legally complex areas, like related entities. Then we have repeated the exercise 12 months later and we have found a marked improvement in design and operational effectiveness, in the range of 19-21%.  

This shows that our engagement, education focus, and advice can assist organisations in meeting legislative requirements, while easing the regulatory burden.

We are also required to produce a report annually on the operation of the GIPA Act. It is a state based report which covers all five groups of regulated entities which I talked about previously. It is an examination of how the Act is working in NSW, and whether people are getting what they asked for. The report is based on a standard series of questions and standard data sets derived from agencies’ obligations to report to the Information Commissioner.

Early next year will see the fourth report on the operation of Act published by the IPC. It is based on a very rich data set which we are also going to make publicly available, both data from past and future reports.

We also use this report as a ‘thought leadership’ piece, to exemplify best practice. We draw upon international research and we highlight emerging issues and foreshadow what we will address as part of our upcoming year’s regulatory plan.

What are your other plans for the next year?

We have launched for the first time a regulatory framework and the Information Commissioner’s Regulatory Plan for 2016-17. The framework gives certainty to both agencies and citizens, as to what will be our agenda and how we will approach our regulatory responsibilities.

We use data from many sources to drive our regulatory initiatives, and we use an escalated model where we only step up our regulatory intervention when necessary. We also use a strategic approach and apply intelligence to look at identifying the most serious events and highest risks in our regulatory environment and how will we address those risks.

The plan this year has four priorities. The first one is delivering regulatory guidance to assist agencies to improve compliance with the GIPA Act. The second priority is to examine and elevate effectiveness for information release. Priority three is to continue to deliver effective protection and promotion of information access rights; and priority four is to improve our capacity to deliver risk-based, pro-active regulatory action to drive improved compliance by agencies.

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