Tag Archives: Open the Government

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.

Freedom of Information Day Explores, Expands Transparency Initiatives

Today’s news from open government advocates meeting in Washington, D.C. for Sunshine Week concerns developments with the Open Government Partnership.  This global initiative is closely related to the previously described National Action Plan currently under critical review by a host of open government nonprofits as well as by government agencies themselves.

The Open Government Partnership involves representatives and leaders of civil society organizations in a concerted effort to encourage nations to commit themselves to take action steps to facilitate transparency.

At this point OGP teams are betting organized to focus on each of the government’s commitments to openness.  The White House has agreed to set up meetings with each of the teams and the responsible officials(s) inside the agencies.  The teams and staff will work together to assess the current status of the agency’s commitment, to recommend what needs to be done, and to support the work of government officials who have made a commitment to openness.

The assessment of progress will involve establishing metrics, tweaking the drafts and using those metrics to assess progress.  The process will include representatives of the watchdog organizations and of government agencies.  One essential aspect of the project is that non-government civil society organizations will bolster agency efforts by providing technical assistance, expert advice or political pressure for change.  Follow the OGP initiative on their blog.

The Open Government Partnership will be just one of the topics on the agenda for Freedom of Information Day tomorrow, March 15, at the Newseum in Washington, DC.   This is an SRO event, but the talks and discussion will be webcast

Rays of Hope from Sunshine Week 2013

It’s eight years now since the first Sunshine Week, celebrated this week, March 10-March16.  Sunshine Week  is a national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of freedom of information and open government.  The week was chosen to coincide with the birthday of James Madison (more about the Mr. Madison later).  At the national level the prime mover behind Sunshine Week was the American Society of News Editors, later joined by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In those eight years change on every front has transformed the very context in which we celebrate Sunshine Week 2013.   Change has occurred at such a dizzying pace that government, the press, and citizens may be at a loss, seeking for some framework to understand how open government could and should work in the 21st Century.

The fact that it is the press that initiated the concept of Sunshine Week is significant.  The media environment of today bears scant resemblance to what it was a decade ago.  Investigative reporting is more honored in the breach than in the observance.  Warp speed journalism doesn’t allow time for deep investigation.  The print press has faded in the wings as everyone with a smart phone is both a source and consumer of what passes for news.

The flow of information between government and the general populace is totally changed.  The government both gathers and produces information online – and with the change in format come challenges that confound agencies and constituencies alike.

Though the current administration has established policies to promote openness, the wheels of government grind slowly, and a strict diet of transparency is problematic at best.

So it is interesting to note what’s happening this week as the watchdogs of open government grapple with open government circa 2013.  Some examples:

  • Monday morning started with the Fourth Annual Department of Justice Sunshine Week Celebration at which the DOJ’s chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer led a discussion of federal agencies’ improvements in FOIA administration.
  • Symbolic but important, at the same time there was a rare viewing and discussion of the Freedom of Information Act at the National Archives, including a demonstration of the multi-agency FOIA portal.  Despite the bold pronouncement that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” charges of recalcitrance on the part of agencies will undoubtedly surfaced at this session.
  • On Tuesday, the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center  (EPIC) will host two panel discussions examining transparency and national security in the Obama administration’s second term.   These are all-star panels on hot topics.  This is one of two Sunshine Week sessions that will be webcast – reservations requested.  The webcast is Noon-3:00 p.m.  RSVP to www.foreffectivegov.org/webcastsrsvp
  • Also on Tuesday, March 12, the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee will hold a panel discussion, 6:30 p.m., about the effect on the press  of laws enacted globally after 9-11.
  • On Wednesday, March 12, there will be a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “We the People: Fulfilling the Promise of Open Government Five Years after The OPEN Government Act.”
  • At the same time Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the George Washington University Law School will be asking the question: Does U.S. Secret Law Threaten our Democracy?
  • Thursday the Brennan Center for Justice will host a panel discussion on the topic “Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform.”  Meanwhile the Cato Institute is holding a workshop looking at legislative data and Wikipedia and the National Press Club will host a panel discussion on using FOIA.
  • Friday is the Annual National Freedom of Information Day conference, this year at the Newseum.  In morning sessions Open the Government will presents its eighth annual Sunshine Week examination of the state of openness in the federal government, focusing this year on the outlook for the President’s second term.  The day includes a keynote discussion with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and a discussion of the new documentary Whistleblowers. The American Library Association will also presents it James Madison Award.  This FOI Day observance is the second of the week’s events that will be webcast beginning at 8:30 a.m. (7:30 CST)

It may tempting to think that these Sunshine Week activities are only for the Beltway Insiders and government geeks.  Still, without these Insiders, the watchdogs, the whistblowers and the faithful attendees at hearings and endless meetings,  the public right to access would surely be thwarted.

We depend on the eyes and ears – and collaborative efforts – of these observers to keep the decision-making processes remains open to the press and to the public.  They keep a watchful eye to be sure that the exigencies of the day do not interfere with the assumption of openness.  Though it may seem remote, consider these stories of the ways in which access to government information play out in the real world, the real world where it makes a difference to every one of us.

We may not be there to keep an eagle eye on the day’s decisions, but we live with the consequences.



Sunshine Week Openthegovernment Conference Now Online

In weeks past I have written about my opportunity to participate in Sunshine Week activities in Washington, DC.  It’s a busy week with a couple of key highlights.  One is Freedom of Information Day, March 16, the birth date of freedom of information advocate James Madison.

The second major activity of Sunshine Week is a national webcast and open meeting; that event, held March 18 at the Center for American Progress, was sponsored by OpentheGovernment.  Theme for this year’s webcast was “The Road Forward on Open Government.” I was in the audience (actually with the awesome responsibility of holding up the time limit cards…) and was so wishing other advocates had the same opportunity.  Now you do – almost.

The OpentheGovernment webcast is now available online.  Speakers and panelists included, among others, Steven Croley, Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy, White House Domestic Policy Council, David S. Ferriero, Archivest of the United States, and Gary Bass, Executive Director (until July 1) of OMB Watch.  Patrice McDermott, Director of OpentheGovernment moderates a great panel of journalists and other access advocates.

The transcript and video are  available on C-SPAN.  Clips and the full conference are also on Facebook.



Open Government Doesn’t Just Happen

Since my recent week in Washington DC I have been more than ever aware of transparency issues as they unfold at the national level.  And I have found myself musing with admiration about the real work of those who labor relentlessly and outside the public eye to tweak the gears that open the system.

There are those who maintain that the Obama administration is not living up to the promise of transparency.  And there are those who think Rome was built in a day.  I saw progress midst massive technological and political change.  As a citizen advocate without portfolio I am often overwhelmed – though undaunted – by the acronym-laced dialog and reporting from the political pros.

One of the most citizen-friendly activities in which I participated in DC was the webcast sponsored by Open the Government and the Center for American Progress.  That superb program was enlightening, even entertaining, and definitely accessible to the public at large.  It’s available online to anyone who wants a quick review of what’s happening in the access arena – with a chance to meet some of the key players including White House staff,  representatives of the press and good government groups.  Check it out.

There are legions of committed, informed and ardent advocates for access at work every day on Capitol Hill, in the bureaucracies and in countless committees, task forces and interest groups.  Most of their work is widely accessible through the mix of social networks.  While it is clearly impossible to track all that’s happening, my advice is to keep on eye on some of the key players, e.g. Open the Government, OMB Watch, American Library Association Washington Office, Society of Professional Journalists, and, even more important, to stay in touch with the  arm of your own professional or good government organization that commits time and energy to open government issues.

From my citizen perspective these bold interactions offer hope.  Access to information creates a mighty thirst for more access to more and better information – and a profound appreciation of good information at the moment of need or interest.

Still, there is a gap – a chasm – to be breached.  Investigative journalists crave access.  Their insatiable public depends on their access and on them.  What happens when the ranks of the journalists diminish and the owners of the mighty channels of communication fail to meet their monetary demands.

Since my Sunshine Week in DC I have had the chance to participate in a dynamic conference at MIT sponsored by Journalism That Matters (JTM).  That conference brought together librarians and journalists in what must have been the first-ever open discussion of joint purposes, issues and possibilities.  It was a great complement to the DC experience — More about that in another most.

Wikileaks FAQs

Open the Government plays David in the federal David vs Goliath world of information access.  Once again the dynamo organization has risen to meet head on the digital dilemma de jour.  This time it’s Wikileaks and the flood those leaks unleash.  The FAQs about the Wikileaks controversy are totally on target.  With thanks we share the gift of information from Open the Government. Following is a memo received today:

OpenTheGovernment.org has worked with our partners to answer some of the questions transparency advocates are frequently asked about the WikiLeaks controversy, and have set up a site (https://sites.google.com/site/wikileaksandtransparency/ ) with some useful resources on the issue. While the answers below were developed with input and advice from a broad range of our partners, they do not represent and are not intended to be representative of a consensus view among our coalition partners, or the wider openness community. (View the FAQ’s online here: http://www.openthegovernment.org/article/articleview/458/)

WikiLeaks Frequently Asked Questions

Are the people working for WikiLeaks journalists?
As neither the Espionage Act, nor the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution differentiates between journalists and any other person, the question of who does and does not qualify as a journalist is irrelevant to issues at the heart of the WikiLeaks controversy.

Could Bradley Manning, or other accused leakers, and WikiLeaks be prosecuted?
There is a clear distinction between Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks under the law. If the governments allegations are true, Spc. Bradley Manning and/or other government employees disclosed classified information to unauthorized persons. As a government official Spc. Manning had an obligation to protect both the classified information and sensitive intelligence sources, and the personal privacy of other third parties mentioned in government documents.

The government interprets the Espionage Act to grant wide discretion in prosecuting leaks of classified information. Whether or not it is fair and appropriate to prosecute Pfc. Manning for choosing to violate his duty as a government employee to protect properly classified information is an open question that ultimately rests on whether one thinks the public good in exposing the information outweighs the potential harm to national security and the violation of the rights of innocent third parties. As more facts regarding the matter are made public as the prosecution proceeds, this debate will continue.

The case against WikiLeaks for violation of the Espionage Act is a much tougher sale for the government to make. As noted in a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Criminal Prohibitions on the Publication of Classified Defense Information, Congress’ research arm is “aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it.” The Department of Justice would be wading into untested waters to bring a case which could have disastrous ramifications. Prosecuting WikiLeaks would undoubtedly harm on our first amendment protections and have a chilling effect on the press. Further, were the prosecution to fail, we could expect Congress to revive old proposed amendments to the law that would likewise curb free speech and press rights, hurt information sharing and disclosure, and encourage more classification of information.

We hope that Congress will resist the impulse to move quickly and speak loudly in favor of a cautious, measured approach. On December 16, 2010, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “The Espionage Act and the Legal and Constitutional Issues Raised by Wikileaks.” The overwhelming sentiment of the seven witnesses testifying at that hearing was that Congress should focus its efforts on preventing leaks from within, not punishing those who receive or even publish such information. The Committee, and others with jurisdiction, should heed that advice and, in fact, collect more information before proceeding. The initial attempt to address the Wikileaks, the SHIELD (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination) Act introduced on December 2, 2010, in the Senate as S 4004, contains several clearly unconstitutional provisions.

What should be done to better protect our national security?
The best way to protect against disclosure of our national security secrets is to deal with the supply side of the equation: improving security on our information systems and reducing over-classification. The government has an obligation to protect classified information, and the fact Pfc. Manning or someone else was supposedly able to walk out of a secure area with a trove of classified national security information on a CD is unconscionable. The Administration should endeavor to ensure that any security measures implemented are platform, issue and personnel neutral to the greatest extent possible. In other words, there should be no possibility for selective application for political purposes. If information or materials require the highest security, that security must apply in all situations.

The Administration should also push agencies to complete the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review, a procedure required by President Obama’s Executive Order on Classified National Security Information (EO 13526). Every agency that classifies information is supposed to seek out, identify and remove classification requirements that are no longer valid. The disclosures on WikiLeaks prove that much of what the government says is classified is not much of a secret at all. This overclassified information clogs our systems and prevents us from protecting the real secrets nearly as well as we should.

What is the relationship between the WikiLeaks case and the pending Whistleblower Protection Act, S. 372?
S. 372 does not under any circumstances authorize public disclosures of classified information, or disclosures of sensitive sources and methods information to any unauthorized persons or entities. Indeed, S. 372 is an anti-leaks measure; absent it, media outlets and WikiLeaks will be the safest alternative for those who want to challenge fraud, waste and abuse without engaging in professional suicide. Congress should pass the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act to provide safe and credible channels for disclosing classified information, when none currently exists.

For more information on S. 372, see POGO’s fact sheet.

There is wide disagreement in the openness community as to whether or not Spc. Manning is a whistleblower: while much of the information he allegedly disclosed clearly benefits the public interest by exposing unnecessary official secrecy and potentially informing public debate about our government’s policies and actions, it is also argued that the sheer volume of the materials recklessly puts innocent parties at risk.




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