Monthly Archives: January 2014

Open Government – A global challenge with high stakes

How long shall we blunder along without the aid of unpartisan and authoritative scientific assistance in the administration of justice, no one knows; but all fair persons not conventionalized by provincial legal habits of mind ought, I should think, unite to effect some change.  ~ Judge Learned Hand, judicial opinion rendered in 1911

Let’s face it, these days of forced hibernation can either depress the spirits or inspire grand thoughts of ways in which “all fair persons not conventionalized by provincial legal habits of mind” might “unite to effect some change.”

Genetically predisposed as I am to “taking arms against a sea of troubles,” let me propose a profound thought appropriate for a long winter ponder.  Try thinking, even briefly, about the Open Government Partnership.  (http://www.opengovpartnership.org)

Once a dream, now a reality, the OGP is raising the issue of open government to a place of honor on the international policy agenda.  The global power of the concept lies in the shared recognition of the work required of national governments and non-government organizations to come to grips with the enormity of the world information infrastructure.  The hope of the concept rises from the shared vision of how, working in tandem, the world’s democracies can metaphorically get their arms around the behemoth challenge of assuring open government in the 21st Century.

The OGP is “a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

Reflecting the enormity of today’s information reality – and the challenge to establish policies and procedures that cope with the challenge – the OGP formally launched on September 20, 2011, when the eight founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States) endorsed the Open Government Declaration and announced their country’s action plans.  Critical to the essence of OGP is the fact that the stakeholders include both governments and civil society organizations, a broad term that encompasses NGO’s, nonprofits, and other advocacy groups.

The mission of OGP is to establish an action agenda, individually and collectively, that will track the ways in which participating governments take meaningful, measurable, steps to be more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens.  The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of governance, as well as the quality of services that citizens receive. Visionaries who are working on shaping the OGP action agenda admit that “this will require a shift in norms and culture to ensure genuine dialogue and collaboration between governments and civil society.”

Bottom line, the goal of OGP is to support both government and civil society reformers by “elevating open government to the highest levels of political discourse, providing ‘cover’ for difficult reforms, and creating a supportive community of like-minded reformers from countries around the world.”

A thousand OGP advocates met in recently in London to assess progress to date and to agree on an aggressive action agenda. The key objective over the next two years is to monitor and validate that real change is happening on the ground in a majority of OGP countries, and that this change is benefitting citizens.

Ambitious next steps are these: 1) to maintain high-level political leadership and commitment to OGP within participating countries, 2) to support domestic reformers with technical expertise and inspiration, and 3) to foster more engagement in OGP by a diverse group of citizens and civil society organizations.  The overarching goal is to ensure that countries are held accountable for making progress toward achieving their OGP commitments.

To date over 60 nations have made formal commitments to the Open Government Partnership. Following the original cohort of eight nations, the next cohort included Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Paraguay, Peru, Romania, Slovak Republic, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, Tanzania, Turkey, Ukraine and Uruguay.  These were followed by  Argentina, Costa Rica, Finland, Ghana, Hungary, Liberia and Panama, Australia, Ireland, Malawi, Mongolia, New Zealand, Sierra Leone, Serbia, and Trinidad and Tobago.  And Yes, there are some surprises on that diverse list.

Participating nations have made nearly1000 specific commitments to make their governments more open and accountable. These commitments reflect honest and serious effort on the part of both the governments and the civil society organizations.

Though civil society organizations do not formally join the Partnership in the same way that governments do, they play a critical role in OGP at both the national and international levels.  Within every OGP participating country, civil society organizations work with their governments to develop, implement and monitor their country’s OGP action plan.

To track the progress OGP has established an Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) which produces biannual independent progress reports for each participating country.  The progress reports assess governments on implementation of action plans, track progress in fulfilling open government principles, and make technical recommendations for improvements.  The intent is to encourage a public discussion of what’s been done and what is needed.

On October 23, 2013 the IRM issued its report on the status of US effortsThe IRM report is available at http://www.opengovpartnership.org/blog/blog-editor/2013/10/23/irm-releases-united-states-report-public-comment

Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, responded the next day.  Find her response at http://www.opengovpartnership.org/blog/patrice-mcdermott/2013/10/24/comments-usa-irm-report

The next step now is for individuals and organizations, everyone who has a stake in open government (and who does not?) to review – and respond to –  the President’s National Action Plan for Open Government, a copy of which is available at http://e-pluribusunum.com/2013/12/06/united-states-releases-second-open-government-national-action-plan/)

The work of OGP is not the work of wonks but of citizen advocates for whom open government is now and always was the core value of a democracy.  The spirit of the OGP is fueled by informed citizens who know that, though the technology may change, first principles are firm and fundamental.

The US commitment to the Open Government Partnership – and to the American people – demands serious commitment not of words but of resources, including time and energy.  It remains to the American people to monitor the follow through and to capitalize on the opportunity.  Open government is difficult to define, more difficult to track.  Still, we know it when we see it….and we have some sense of what it means when the portals to open government are shuttered.

It’s neither too late nor too cold for a 2014 Open Government resolution:

Be it resolved that all fair persons not conventionalized

by provincial legal habits of mind…

 unite to effect some change.

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Thought for 2014: Government ought to be all outside and no inside

Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States on January 1, 1914, wrote these words a century ago: “Government ought to be all outside and no inside.”  A century later we have an unprecedented opportunity to heed his counsel.

My association with government information has always been somewhat personal.  Decades ago Superintendent of Documents Carper W. Buckley was my Government Documents professor in library school.  At one point I worked for a Wisconsin Congressman where one of my assigned tasks was to pack up and mail the surplus volumes of the Agriculture Yearbook, generously exchanged by his fellow Congressmen who traded for titles they thought more relevant to their urban constituents.  I also remember a summer during which temp employees  in the House of Representatives mail room were assigned to rip the covers off Your Child From One to Six – Southern members couldn’t send their constituents a government publication that featured a Black doctor treating a white child….

At one point I worked at what was then the Bureau of the Budget.  I was intrigued by the off-limits corner where the “classified” documents were shielded from the view of “non-professionals.”. I think I had the misconception that they were like the banned books on The Index.

Bottom line, I always knew that the business of sharing information by and about the federal government was an intensely human enterprise, subject to politics, budgets, human proclivities – and inattention.  The power of information is perhaps too overwhelming, and too implicit, for us to grasp.

With time and experience my anecdotal interest has evolved to a deeper understanding of the unparalleled power of the government information chain to shape our very democracy.  Each link has a unique and powerful role – from who decides what research in conducted and what data are collected to who is watching the surge of power pulsing through the information chain.   Though the power is palpable, warp speed technology, the interference of economic and political forces with their own agenda, inattention to oversight – and a heavy dose of malicious intent – have transformed the concept of open government.

Still, at the core, I maintain my firm, if naïve, conviction that information by and about the government, information that is the lifeblood of a democracy, belongs to the people.   As James Madison warned,  “popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

We are at a crossroads.  If there is good to be found in recent leaks it is that, finally, the American people are taking a serious look at the ways in which our government deals with the coin of the realm of this or any democracy – information by and about the government.  At the dawn of the digital age  Swedish philosopher  Sissela Bok cautioned that “a guarantee of public access to government information is indispensable in the long run for any democratic society….If officials make public only what they want citizens to know, then publicity becomes a sham and accountability meaningless.”