Open government endures beyond the Open Government Partnership

Yesterday, the Open Government Partnership placed the United States of America under review after the U.S. government failed to deliver a fourth National Action Plan for Open Government, as required for continued participation in the global multi-stakeholder initiative that it launched in 2011.

As I wrote over at E-PluribusUnum.org, the White House Office of Management and Budget has been silent for over four months after it missed a second, key deadline for submitting a new United States National Action Plan for Open Government for the Open Government Partnership (OGP) after it convened workshops and an online forum in 2017 and 2018.

Now there’s a consequence: if the USA fails to deliver a new NAP during this Review period (in this case, by August of this year), the OGP Steering Committee will likely vote to agree to making the country inactive.

A member of the civil society who responded to the news on an Open Government Partnership newsgroup by saying that he’s “confident Opengov will be alive and well in the US despite the Trump administration,” given cities and states participating in OGP, and asserting that’s why it’s important that the OGP local agenda is seen not as an add-on but as the main show of the OGP movement.

I wanted to amply the response I sent, because it’s an important point of clarity: OGP is not the same as open government. Open government existed in the United States and in nations around the world long before OGP was launched in 2011, and will endure if it goes away.

Governments have been adopting new technologies for transparency & accountability, at all levels. Freedom of information laws have been on the books for decades. (In Sweden, for centuries!) Sunshine laws focused on ethics disclosures, public meetings, and public participation have been around for decades and keep getting stronger. Watchdogs and investigative journalists have been holding governments to account. OGP could go away entirely and open government would endure because of those laws and advocates, dedicated civil servants and appointees, inspectors general, Congress, archivists, librarians, teachers, and the press.

When we analyze the state of open government in a given country, we have to look beyond participation in a given multilateral initiative or club. Scoring the state of human rights in a given country based upon their membership in the UN Human Rights Council, for instance, doesn’t make a lot of sense! (Just look at participation by, say, Syria or Saudi Arabia, or US withdrawal.)

And all that said, I am not quite as confident: open government is under continued pressure in states across the USA. Many cities also have a Janus-like approach borrowed from nations, simultaneously earning praise for open data while continuing to stonewall FOI requests and shield police departments from scrutiny.

Beyond that, I respectfully disagree about the “local agenda” being the “main show” of OGP, or that it is a “movement,” any more than the ill-defined civic tech space is, though both share characteristics.

OGP is a multilateral initiative primarily funded by foundations and governments without significant popular support or even public awareness. (You can draw some conclusions from the lack of news coverage about the US being under review.)

OGP was designed to be a platform for civil society to be co-equal partners in co-creating commitments which a nation would then work to achieve, with a IRM mechanism to evaluate progress and a peer group to incent a “race to the top.”

We must not move the football to focus on the local level as national participation or progress falters, but be honest about how effective OGP has been in empowering civil society to achieve advocacy and reform goals or influencing governments to follow through on meaningful commitments that improve lives and governance.

OGP remains a valuable platform, convener, and mechanism for many players around the world to gain international attention for their efforts or to decry regression when governments renege on commitments or engage in anti-democratic behaviors.

Over the past two years in the USA, however, the press, courts and watchdogs organizations have been the primary drivers of transparency and accountability in our federal government, between investigations, rulings in FOIA lawsuits, complaints — though it has been heartening to see how much resilience persists in agencies to continue work on open government policies, programs and platforms, from disclosures to IG & GAO investigations.

Most of the leadership and staff of the open government organizations and watchdogs chose not to participate in the 2018 co-creation workshops because the Trump administration has not shown good faith. I went, participated and documented what I saw, giving dedicated civil servants stepping up lead the effort the benefit of the doubt. It’s not their fault that political leadership above them have failed to deliver on promises.

In the next two years, I expect Congress to be the primary driver of transparency and accountability through legislation and oversight. If someone wants to see real reforms in the USA right now, pushing to enact H.R. 1 or Senator Warren’s integrity bill is likely to have far more concrete outcomes that affect the daily lives of Americans than a voluntary commitment to an MSI that appears to have little valence in the White House or beyond.

While there’s a far different dynamic at play in cities because of the nature of the Trump administration, I don’t think it’s that different a decision matrix: if you want to see lasting change in a given city, make sure city councils pass reforms. Don’t rely on voluntary commitments or executive orders that a new administration can choose not to honor or reverse.