New Open Government Partnership Could Drive U.S. Commitments
A new global initiative could drive additional improvements to U.S. transparency policies. Launched on July 12, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) asks participating countries to make concrete commitments to increase transparency within the next year. Initial participants, including the U.S., are scheduled to announce their commitments in September.
President Obama launched the initiative in a speech at the United Nations in September 2010, during which he called on countries to make "specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; [and] to leverage new technologies." Seven countries have since joined the initiative, including Brazil, which is a co-chair of the partnership. The other six partner countries are Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. An eighth country, India, joined but subsequently withdrew from the partnership.
OGP is overseen by a steering committee consisting of the eight initial governments and a group of civil society representatives, including the National Security Archive, a U.S. nonprofit organization focused on government openness. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a group of donor organizations, provided funds for staff for the partnership and travel funds to support civil society participation. This unique role for civil society groups in a multilateral initiative reflects OGP's recognition of the importance of civil society in effective democratic governance.
The U.S. State Department hosted the July 12 meeting that formally launched the partnership. Representatives from more than 50 countries attended and were invited to join the partnership, along with more than 40 civil society organizations from around the world. Candidates for membership must meet certain eligibility criteria, including a minimum baseline of performance on basic open government. Those countries eligible and interested can join the partnership at its September event. Participants will endorse a declaration of open government principles at that time, which has not yet been released.
Each of the initial partners will also release their open government action plans. Countries that join in September will present their plans sometime in 2012. The action plans are meant to drive voluntary, innovative commitments to improve upon the foundation for open government that already exists in each country and in international law, including human rights instruments and the Convention Against Corruption.
The action plans will address the themes of transparency, participation, accountability, and innovation. The commitments are to "stretch government practice beyond its current baseline" and to contain "timeframes and benchmarks" to allow evaluation of progress. Plans will be organized around one or more of five "grand challenges": improving public services, increasing public integrity, effectively managing public resources, creating safer communities, and increasing corporate accountability. In addition to soliciting feedback from their domestic publics, countries will engage in peer consultation while developing their plans.
Countries will publish a self-assessment of their progress in the first year after adopting their action plans. Civil society organizations in each country will also produce an independent review of their government's performance.
In addition to the action plans, OGP includes a networking mechanism for governments to exchange ideas and solicit expertise from other governments and private experts worldwide. This mechanism could be a valuable source of new ideas for transparency improvements, which could allow countries to essentially import best practices and proven innovations from abroad while sharing knowledge in areas where they are leaders.
U.S. Action Plan
The American open government community is hopeful that the Obama administration will continue its transparency leadership by developing a robust OGP action plan. The emphasis on concrete commitments achievable within one year will mean the administration's plan likely will not contain comprehensive reforms but could include innovative and meaningful steps forward.
With the short timeline between the launch and the September meeting, questions remain about the U.S. government's public consultations in developing its action plan. A July 12 White House blog post stated that "we look forward to your input and ideas as we develop our action plan going forward," and the administration has begun invited meetings with select organizations, but it has not yet announced its plans for public consultation. If handled well, the consultations could be a powerful way for citizens to bring their ideas for transparency to the administration, including not just D.C. groups but grassroots organizations from across the country.
Open government groups also are eager to see the administration carry forward the momentum from its previous transparency commitments, build on these advances, and expand proactive disclosure of information across agencies. Advocates hope that Obama's personal commitment to OGP will motivate the administration to find creative ways to navigate resource constraints and political obstacles to achieve real improvements on delivering the open government that the American people deserve.