In 2010, President Barack Obama spoke to the United Nations General Assembly about open government. “The common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens,” he said, “and the diversity in this room makes clear — no one country has all the answers, but all of us must answer to our own people.”
In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. And now, we must build on that progress. And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries, while living up to the ideals that can light the world.
Open government, said Samantha Power, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, could have a global impact.
In 2011, a historic Open Government Partnership launched in New York City, hailed as a fresh approach to parting the red tape by the Economist. “The partnership is really the first time that there is a multilateral platform to address these issues,” said Maria Otero, former under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs at the United States State Department. “The partnership could have focused on countries come in and present best practices and exchange ideas and then just go home.”
“The partnership is really focused on first having countries participate that have already demonstrated interest in this area and have already put in place a number of specific things and the material laid out, if you will, the minimum standards that are being requested. What the partnership really looks for is to provide a mechanism by which the countries can each develop their own national plans on ways to expand what they’re doing on transparency, accountability, and civic engagement, or to start new initiatives for them. That is really what is very different and important about this partnership, is that it is very action- and results-oriented.”
In 2012, the Open Government Partnership became a player on the world stage as it hosted a global gathering of national leaders and civil society an annual meeting in Brazil, with the responsibilities and challenges that accompany that role, including pushing participants to submit missing action plans and progress reports, not just letters of commitment.
In January 2013, Power hailed the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as President Obama’s signature governance initiative:
It’s not about the abstraction about ‘fighting corruption’ or ‘promoting transparency’ or ‘harnessing innovation’ — it’s about ‘are the kids getting the textbooks they’re supposed to get’ or does transparency provide a window into whether resources are going where they’re supposed to go and, to the degree to which that window exists, are citizens aware and benefiting from the data and that information such that they can hold their governments accountable. And then, does the government care that citizens care that those discrepancies exist?
In May 2013, a seminal event in the evolution of OGP occurred when Russia withdrew from the Open Government Partnership:
If the dominant binary of the 21st century is between open and closed, Russia looks more interested in opting towards more controllable, technocratic options that involve discretionary data releases instead of an independent judiciary or freedom of assembly or the press. One of the challenges of the Open Government Partnership has always been the criteria that a country had to pass to join and then continue to be a member. Russia’s inclusion in OGP instantly raised eyebrows, doubts and fears last April, given rampant corruption in the public sector and Russia’s terrible record on press freedom. “Russia’s withdrawal from the OGP is an important reminder that open government isn’t easy or politically simple,” said Nathaniel Heller, executive director of Global Integrity. “While we don’t yet fully understand why Russia is leaving OGP, it’s safe to assume that the powers that be in the Kremlin decided that it was untenable to give reformers elsewhere in the Russian government the freedom to advance the open government agenda within the bureaucracy.”
In November 2013, the world may have hit ‘peak open‘ at the OGP annual summit in London, despite the partnerships’ members facing default states of closed.
Swirling underneath the professional glitz of an international summit were strong undercurrents of concern about its impact upon governments reluctant to cede power, reveal corruption or risk embarrassment upon disclosure of simple incompetence. The OGP summit took place at a moment where 21st century technology-fueled optimism has splashed up against the foundations of institutions created in the previous century. While the use of the Internet as a platform for collective action has grown, so too have attendent concerns about privacy and surveillance, in the wake of disclosures by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, where the same technologies that accelerated revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa are being used to capture and track the people advocating for change.
In 2014 the Open Government Partnership has matured and expanded, with France joining earlier in the year and Bosnia and Herzegovina bringing the total number of participating countries to 65 out of about 88 eligible countries worldwide. As OGP turns three, the partnership is celebrating the success of its expansion and looking ahead to its future, with a clearer mission and goals and ambitious four year strategy (PDF). The partnership is finally writing letters to countries that are not living up to their commitments, although the consequences for their continued participation if they do not comply remain to be seen.
The challenges and opportunities ahead for a partnership that provides a platform for civil society to hold government accountable are considerable, given the threats to civil society worldwide and the breathtaking changes brought about through technological innovation. Today, 10 national leaders will speak in New York City to mark OGP’s third anniversary. (I’ll be there to listen and share what I can.)
After the speeches end and the presidents and prime ministers return home, serious questions will remain regarding their willingness to put political capitol behind reforms and take tough stands to ensure that their governments actually open up. Digital government is not open government, just as not all open data supports democratic reforms. As Mexico prepares to become lead co-chair of OGP, one element that didn’t make it into the challenges listed for the country is the state of press freedom in Mexico. As the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted, open government is not sustainable without a free press. As long as the murders of journalists go unpunished in Mexico, the commitments and efforts of the Mexican national government will have to be taken in context.
Given this blog’s past stance that as press freedom goes, so too does open government, I’ve signed a petition urging the White House to explicitly support a right to report. Every other country that has committed to open government should do the same. Given OGP’s own challenges around the media and open government (PDF), I would also urge the partnership to make sure that press freedom and freedom of expression occupies a prominent place in its advocacy efforts in the years ahead.