The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) may only have opened for business yesterday, but already the commissioner, Professor John McMillan, is showing political nous. That’s to be expected. He was Commonwealth Ombudsman from 2003 to 2010, and acting-commissioner of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity in 2007.

McMillan is charged with developing the government’s information policies. That’s not just the now-traditional matters of Freedom of Information (FOI) and privacy but also the Government 2.0 agenda — including following up the  Declaration of Open Government, which, as Crikey reported, was posted by Lindsay Tanner as one of his final acts the day before the federal election was called.

Developing this “pro-disclosure culture” won’t be easy. Some agencies clearly consider secrecy to be the norm, and involving the pubic dangerous.

As Crikey reported yesterday, at least one person at the Attorney-General’s department thinks it’s important to avoid “premature unnecessary debate” on controversial issues such as data retention by internet service providers because it might “impede government decision making”. And as the Wendy Kelly, director of the department’s Telecommunications and Surveillance Law Branch, told a  Senate Inquiry on Friday, “We cannot publicly consult without the approval of the government.”

The exact role of the OAIC is still unclear. Changes in information policy are also driven by the Department of Finance and Deregulation, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) and the Department of Innovation.

“We’re expecting to have a role in driving it. Just what our role is, is a little undefined, which is why we put out our issues paper to step into the arena and indicate we have a role to play in this space as well,” McMillan told .

That discussion paper, Towards an Australian Government Information Policy, was published in the  Papers section the OAIC website yesterday but — oh the irony! — as Crikey’s deadline loomed today it had disappeared. A harried-sounding OAIC spokeswoman told us that it will return to that same web page.

Among other things, the paper proposes 10 “Draft Principles on Open Public Sector Information”, the first of which echoes the Government 2.0 Taskforce report. Unless there are “compelling reasons” to the contrary, access to government information should be “open” — that is, free, based on open standards, easily discoverable, understandable, machine-readable, and “freely reusable and transformable”.

In other areas, though, the paper is worded less assertively. It recommends that agencies should merely consider open access licensing of their data, for example. That’s a sign of the new agency feeling its way.

“We have to tread warily. The other agencies are big and have been in there for a while. They have all be welcoming. But if we were too robust, they may regard it as provocative. The first drafting of the principles was quite assertive using phrases such as ‘agencies must or should …’ It was my decision to tone down the wording. I did not want to get into a turf warfare battle with any other agency,” McMillan said.

Comments on the OAIC’s issues paper — when it reappears — close March 1, 2011.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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