After years of delays and democratic regression, USA releases weak open government plan

United-States_Action-Plan_2019-2021_pdf

If the American public wants to see meaningful progress on transparency, accountability or ethics in U.S. government, it should call on Congress to act, not the Trump White House.

With little fanfare or notice, the United States of America has published a fourth National Action Plan for Open Government for the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The USA was automatically placed under review in January, but not because of two years of regression on transparency, accountability, and brazen corruption. The plan was was simply late, after failing to deliver a new plan for the multi-stakeholder initiative for years.

The new “national action plan” is notable for its lack of ambition, specificity or relevance to backsliding on democracy in the USA under the Trump administration.

It contains eight objectives that will, in the words of the unattributed authors of the plan, “make government information more open and accessible for developers, academics, entrepreneurs and everyday Americans–ultimately fostering increased private-sector innovation,more advanced scientific research, stronger economic growth, improved public service delivery, and greater insight into United States Government operations.”

As with many national action plans from far too many participating countries around the globe, the 4th National Action Plan is heavy on existing data and digital government initiatives.

The first commitment – to develop the federal data strategy — should be easy:  the White House has been working on for months. Creating chief data officers in agencies was mandated by the open government data bill President Trump just signed into law. Implementing more transparency in the intelligence community would indeed be valuable, but that work has been ongoing for years, with a big push from the last administration and whistleblowers within it.

The final objective, which is aimed at improving “Public Participation in Developing Future U.S. National Action Plans,” is painfully ironic, given how little effort at public engagement the Trump White House and federal agencies made over the past two years.”

This isn’t to say that these and the objectives listed aren’t valuable, if acted upon, nor that this plan doesn’t matter inside of US government or beyond. Continued US participation will strengthen the hand not only of America’s diplomats and development officials abroad but of reformers in countries around the world, as former State Department officials highlighted.

These commitments are just far short of what this historic moment requires. The fact that the Trump White House decided to position existing digital government initiatives and the Presidential Management Agenda in a handful of commitments was predictable – though withdrawing from the partnership or just ignoring it was within the realm of the possible as well.

There was a roughly 0% chance that a new OGP plan would commit the US government to disclosing Trump’s tax returns or enacting ethics reform that would require it. But the White House could have restarted releasing visitor logs. Treasury could have committed to a beneficial ownership registry. The Department of Justice could have decided to enact a “release to one, release to all” FOIA policy, after all.

There are no draft bills, proposed rulemakings, or executive orders, nor any reference to the 2009 Open Government Directive, Initiative, plans or policies from the past decade.

There are no proposed reforms focused on corruption and shell companies, money in politics, defending democratic institutions, addressing over-classification or military secrecy, investing in civics and public literacy, shoring up public trust in government, opening  federal court records or courtrooms, or improving Congress.

There are certainly no reforms that are responsive to corruption in the White House or the appalling spectacle of a mendacious President who calls journalists the “enemy of the people.”

This weak, unambitious open government plan is the direct outcome of a failed public consultation that did not have the public backing of the president, his communications staff, or his cabinet. No surrogates talked about it on TV. No presidential tweets directed public attention to open.usa.gov.

I went, participated and documented what I saw over the past two years, giving the dedicated civil servants stepping up to lead the effort the benefit of the doubt as they put their own credibility and reputations on the line. As former federal officials noted tonight, they deserve praise.

It’s not the fault of the civil servants who worked on this over the winter that the political leadership above them have failed to deliver on promises or have taken actions to degrade American democracy and undermine the public trust that open government initiatives, at their best, seek to uphold.

The Trump administration’s repackaging of existing digital government and data initiatives does not reflect the priorities or reforms recommended by any of America’s top good government experts, academics, or advocates over the past decade, who by and large chose not to participate in the 2018 co-creation workshops after the Trump administration failed to show any good faith or responsiveness to their legitimate, ongoing concerns.

This is probably good news for the Open Government Partnership, as it won’t have to make the USA inactive. The steering committee might decide to criticize a flawed consultation or weak, unambitious open government plan, but it’s unlikely to say anything now after two years.

A sternly worded letter or editorial isn’t likely to make much of an impact, unless “Fox and Friends” decides to pay attention in some critical form. This White House endures far worse on a daily basis from watchdogs, Congress and editorial boards.

But at a deeper level, the fact that the public and watchdogs were unable to use the Open Government Partnership as a platform to get this White House to commit to any meaningful reforms that the Trump administration did not want to make highlights the real limitations of this multi-stakeholder initiative when it comes to real power.

Fortunately, open government endures beyond the Open Government Partnership, from Congress and the courts to our robust free press and worthy watchdogs willing to file FOIA lawsuits, ethics complaints, and investigate corruption.

The last line of this National Action Plan claims that “the Federal Government looks forward to engaging with the American people in the ever-important work of achieving a more open, accountable, efficient, and effective government.”

The American people should only invest credibility in this administration’s intention to implement any of these commitments when we see Cabinet secretaries, White House officials, the Press Secretary and, perhaps above all, President Donald J. Trump actually share the plan and take questions on the record about it from the press.

While that’s far below the standard we should expect from any president or administration rolling out a national open government plan in a country participating in the the Open Government Partnership, it will be a good litmus test here.

6 thoughts on “After years of delays and democratic regression, USA releases weak open government plan

  1. Pingback: U.S. finally submits fourth National Action Plan for Open Government - FedScoop

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  5. Pingback: How this White House is failing to engage the public about the federal data strategy | E Pluribus Unum

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