Key open gov deadline nears with no public action

Can stakeholders and activists take this White House at its word that it is sincerely interested in advancing open data and open government policy?

open data (Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com)
 

The Open Government Partnership is a global multi-stakeholder initiative that attempts to act as a convening platform for national governments and their publics to create concrete commitments towards democratic reforms. In MSIs, participants voluntarily make collective commitments towards achieving a given goal. The Paris Accord on climate change may be the MSI best known to the public, but there are several other collective governance mechanisms around the world that use the model.

Past and current OGP commitments have included reforms aimed at increasing public access to information, improving good governance, reducing corruption and improving service delivery using new technologies, and engaging the public in public business and processes.

A brief history of OGP

OGP was officially launched by eight founding nations in September 2011, after President Barack Obama outlined a general concept for it in a speech before the United Nations in September 2010. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power once called it Obama's "signature governance initiative."

Every two years, participating national governments draft "National Action Plans" in consultation with domestic civil society groups and the public, which the countries then commit to work towards implementing.

OGP has elevated the profile of transparency, accountability issues around the globe, along with elements of participatory democracy, from civic engagement to collaboration. While many participants have continued to engage in anti-democratic behaviors, including passing regressive laws and restricting or even violating various human rights and freedoms, participating in OGP has also contributed to countries enacting new access to information laws and other reforms.

In countries without long traditions of democratic governance, struggling with serious corruption and service delivery problems, OGP can help give the issues of domestic groups and activists more international attention and add pressure on ministers and presidents to follow through on public commitments made before their peers on a public stage.

The existing evidence suggests that while OGP has helped nurture beneficial shared democratic norms among its participants, the reforms associated with it have often been transparency and e-government policies or programs, but not reactive reforms that are responsive to the needs or priorities of civil society actors, or meaningful accountability for bad actors in the public or private sector.

More subtly, participation in OGP can enable ministers, politicians and governments to claim the mantle of openness while they pursue existing agendas for digital transformation and service delivery that are not directly related to transparency, accountability, corruption, or press freedom.

The U.S. role and how it is changing

While the Obama administration had a mixed record on transparency, under President Barack Obama, the United States played a key role as a founding nation, international leader, coalition builder, host and convener.

Obama's personal participation throughout his second term, combined with his Open Government Directive, signaled that OGP was important to him and an international priority for the nation.

One of the first actions President Donald Trump took in office was to sign a repeal of one of the key initial commitments in the Open Government Partnership -- an anti-corruption rule six years in the making regarding disclosure of payments from oil gas and mineral companies to governments. The move was symbolic of broader quiet moves that harm global governance.

Under Trump, the United States government has moved from /open to /closed.Open government has regressed under the president, with well-documented “information darkness” spreading across agencies, further erosion of trust in government and the office of the presidency itself, and the ongoing, unconstitutional corruption of the conflicts of interest that Trump retained in office.

The pivot away from sunshine

For eight months, this White House had little or nothing to say about sunshine laws, open government programs or policies. In September 2017, however, the Trump administration committed to participating in the Open Government Partnership after substantially ignoring or erasing existing open government programs and initiatives, with the notable choice to end disclosure of White House visitor logs.

After the administration announced its intent in a sparsely attended forum in the U.S. General Services administration, it created open.usa.gov to host OGP-related information, set up a Github instance to collect suggested commitments, hosted two workshops in that agency, and a third at the National Archives.

At the end of October, however, the White House informed OGP that it would delay submitting a plan. OGP moved the cohort in which the USA sits, a bureaucratic maneuver that meant the USA was no longer "late."

In May 2018, the White House quietly announced that it would again pursue co-creating a new national action plan, opened public comment in June, and hosted two more workshops at the GSA headquarters in DC. Administration officials asked participants for concrete, meaningful commitments and suggested initiatives within the President's Management Agenda.

A timeline published in June put the deadline for the fourth NAP on Aug. 31, 2018, but there's been no public activity around the plan since the workshops nor disclosure of private development or drafting.

A path forward?

Can stakeholders and activists take this White House at its word that it is sincerely interested in advancing open data and open government policy?

Yes and no.

The Trump administration has demonstrated interest and commitment to supporting open data relevant to economic activity and implementing the DATA Act, improving how spending information is disclosed to the public.

At the same time, Trump administration has actively slowed or prevented disclosures that would be damaging to its own political interests or those of the business interests.

While the "war on data" that federal watchdogs feared has not been declared, political threats to scientific and data integrity have continued to grow, with many continued unannounced changes and reductions to public information on federal websites.

Many of the concerns that open government leaders had in 2016 have been realized over the tumult of the Trump administration and met with letters, complaints, protests and lawsuits.

OpenTheGovernment executive director Lisa Rosenberg said when the White House Office of Management Budget delayed publishing a fourth National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership on Halloween in 2017, "an administration that has been antagonistic to a free press, withheld the president’s tax returns, kept secret White House Visitors logs, targeted protesters for surveillance and monitoring, and backed out of commitments to disclose information about warrantless surveillance programs, seems unlikely to embrace meaningful commitments under a voluntary, international agreement."

A year later, the public will see whether that remains true.

As in other nations, if the White House submits a plan, look for it to position existing digital government initiatives and emerging technology programs – like those outlined in the Presidential Management Agenda – in a handful of commitments in a new open government plan. (That's a maneuver that has been aptly described as "openwashing" in the past.)

It's also possible that the administration will keep delaying and drawing the consultation process out, given the absence of meaningful consequences for doing so in the court of public opinion, particularly at a historic moment when the presidency itself typified by crisis.

In either case, it's worth noting that there's less good faith remaining on these issues in D.C. In the summer of 2018, most of the members of the open government community -- as represented by the national coalition of organizations that work on transparency, accountability, ethics and good government -- chose not to participate in the workshops in D.C. or propose commitments to the Github forum.

Given the challenges that persisted for organizations that tried to use OGP as an effective platform for achieving their advocacy and reform goals in the past, there's also growing doubt and skepticism across U.S. civil society regarding how effective OGP can be as a mechanism for advocacy and substantive reforms.

Organizations in this community could file a complaint to OGP about a flawed consultation that was marked by minimal public engagement and participation – but that action isn't likely to galvanize the U.S. government to change its behavior or make new commitments to a voluntary international organization.

If a new plan does not include some commitments that are responsive to the priorities of open government advocates and watchdogs -- like some of the federal ethics reforms that Open Government Partnership researchers highlight as a missing component of the past three plans – organizations can and should highlight the Trump administration's shadowy record to the public, press and OGP itself, using the initiative as a platform to hold the U.S. government accountable.

Given the well-documented failings of the Trump administration on open government, more criticism will come as little surprise, but it will be important to set the record straight for posterity and the public through trustworthy, nonpartisan institutions.

In the summer of 2018, an increasing proportion of the American public now tells Pew Research that President Trump "has definitely or probably not run "an open and transparent administration." But there also has been an increase in the proportion of people who think that Trump definitely has done so, likely in part because the president has made that claim repeatedly.

In fact, in 2018 more Republicans now say Trump has run an open and transparent administration, over a time period when his administration's record on open government if anything, grew worse in its second year: secretive, corrupt, hostile to journalism and whistleblowers, mired in scandal, shadowed by foreign entanglements, and characterized by false and misleading claims made to the public by a president whose tangled relationship with the truth is unprecedented in American history.

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