Open Government Partnership researchers find flaws and growing regression on open government in the USA

Today, researchers from the Open Government Partnership’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) shared a new end of term report that detailed both progress and regression in meeting the commitments in the third United States National Action Plan for Open Government between October 2015 and May 2017.

To be charitable, the researchers found a mixed record on open government during that time period, with poor public engagement, limited government feedback, and lack of civil society setting the agenda or participating in an iterative dialog with government. The report is now available for public comment on an collaborative editing platform, if you’d like to review progress on the dozens of commitments that the U.S. government made in 2015.

The report was introduced by the IRM researchers at the OpenGovHub in Washington, DC, with a preface by Chanan Weissman, a civil servant from the State Department who represented the United States government at the event.

You can watch the archived video in on Facebook., including the questions and comments I made. The presentation that the IRM gave is also available online.

For those unfamiliar, the Open Government Partnership is the voluntary multi-stakeholder initiative that the United States launched alongside seven other national partners in 2011. Despite historic regressions on open government in the six months of the Trump administration, the U.S. government committed to continued participation in the partnership last fall.

In October 2017, after a short, flawed public consultation, the White House Office of Management and Budget delayed development and publication of the new plan until “early 2018,” a deadline that was then pushed further to August 31, 2018.

This is the first public comment the U.S. government has made since October 2017. Today, Weissman told the event, people watching online, and the American public that the U.S. government will proceed with the development of a fourth US National Action plan. In the interim, OGP has published new co-creation guidelines that will apply to the U.S. if it pursues a new plan.

Whether that plan is at responsive to the immense challenges that face American democracy and incorporates federal ethics reforms or a host of other programs or legislation remains to be seen.

Unless I see Cabinet secretaries, the White House Press Secretary and communications team, and the President himself tell the public on television and Twitter that they want their voice to be heard in government, directly involving the people who the government serves in its improvement, I can’t recommend investing much faith in the co-creation process.

In a note on methodology in the report, the IRM notes that the US government stopped communicating with the researcher last fall:

With respect to communication with the government, the IRM researcher attempted to obtain a list of potential interviewees from the government’s OGP point of contact (POC) on several occasions during the drafting of this report, beginning in September 2017. In emails sent on 10 October and 24 October 2017, the IRM researcher explicitly requested that the POC make available a list of potential government interviewees to whom the researcher could speak regarding progress made on various commitments contained in the action plan. On 9 November 2017, the IRM researcher spoke via phone with the government POC and reiterated the earlier request for access to a list of potential interviewees. The IRM researcher followed up with an email to the government POC on that same day reiterating the request for a list of interviewees, to which the POC had been receptive during the preceding phone call. The IRM researcher received no subsequent response from the government POC. Moreover, by the close of the assessment period, the government had not released its end of term self-assessment report for the current action plan. The IRM researcher was therefore unable to incorporate government inputs into the production of this report beyond what was accessible via publicly available sources (e.g. press releases, information provided on government
websites, etc.).

In other words, the White House simply stopped working on open government with OGP after filing a delay letter.

While I see renewed action and engagement within the White House Office of Management and Budget, I know very few watchdogs in Washington who have express confidence that OGP will be a point of meaningful leverage with this White House.

As I said this morning, I respect the IRM researchers but there’s no way that U.S. agencies can still proceed as normal for without the President leading, given the Trump administration’s record on transparency and ethics.

The idea that federal agencies will move to real-time reporting on past commitments at a moment when the press and advocates are finding access to information under the Freedom of Information Act reduced isn’t tenable.

At present, there is no /open at this White House and the President is actively eroding public trust in journalism, shredding democratic norms and breaking past U.S. government commitments.

Until the Trump administration acknowledges both the reality and legitimacy of the criticism of its record on transparency and ethics, the premise that a volunteer multilateral organization like OGP can be used as a platform by the public, press and advocates to get the U.S. government to commit to enacting policy, regulatory or legislative reforms will be sorely tested.

As has been true for many months, it’s make or break time for testing whether open government as a reality in U.S. government.

I’ll be following the process here, adding public comment to the draft report in the weeks ahead, and will whatever comes next.

2 thoughts on “Open Government Partnership researchers find flaws and growing regression on open government in the USA

  1. Pingback: Open Government Partnership puts United States under review | E Pluribus Unum

  2. Pingback: Engaging News 25.5.2018 | engage2 Australia

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