Open Government Partnership IRM finds backsliding in the USA

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This White House’s decision to continue U.S. government participation in the Open Government Partnership was far from certain, given the demonstrated distaste of the Trump administration for international agreements and institutions. In that context, The Trump administration’s commitment to participating in OGP in the fall of 2017 took many close observers by surprise, despite the U.S. government’s role in founding the global multi-stakeholder initiative in 2011.

Continued U.S. involvement in OGP is valuable both domestically and internationally, but judging the health of open government in federal government based upon whether any of commitments in this new weak new national action plan are completed would be foolish, given documented regression.

In a few weeks, Sunshine Week will cast a stark light on exactly where things stand.

The reality is that open government performance in the United States has been slow and unsteady years, as documented by a researcher at OGP Independent Review Mechanism in a new empirical analysis. that compared the U.S. government’s third National Action Plan performance against the previous action plan and a group of OECD peer countries.

The OGP IRM’s conclusions:

(1) On average, U.S. performance under NAP3 is statistically indistinguishable from its performance under NAP2.

(2) On average, U.S. performance under NAP3 is statistically indistinguishable from that of its OECD peers, with the exception of minor differences in mid-term completion rates.

(3) On average, the U.S. under NAP3 advanced commitments with low potential and actual impact that only marginally opened government. U.S. performance in this regard is nevertheless statistically indistinguishable from its own performance under NAP2 and that of its OECD peers, reflecting a high historical prevalence of low-impact action plans, both within the U.S. and globally.

(4) For the first time in its assessment history, U.S. performance under NAP3 resulted in a closure of government, as reflected in a ‘Did-It-Open-Government’ score of ‘Worsened’ for two commitments. Collectively, these findings suggest that while the U.S. performs well on commitment completion (in both absolute and relative terms), it continues to advance low-impact commitments that only marginally shift the needle toward more open government. U.S. backsliding and the delayed release of NAP4 cast doubt on the U.S.’ commitment to creating a more open government.

Based upon these findings, OGP IRM researcher Jason McMann concluded that “U.S. backsliding under the third national action plan and the delayed release of the fourth one (which was released far later than anticipated in February 2019 following the U.S. being placed under review by the OGP Criteria & Standards Sub-Committee) cast substantial forward-looking doubt on the U.S.’ commitment to opening government more fully.”

The reality is that over the past two years, the Trump administration has not only slowed but reversed many of the hard-won gains achieved through by advocates, legislators, dedicated civil servants and appointees over the years.

The OGP IRM has concluded that in the past, the U.S. “advanced commitments with low potential and actual impact that only marginally opened government.”

This should not build confidence in the capacity of this fourth “action plan” to improve the health American democracy, particularly given the bad faith shown by the people who convened hundreds of people in DC and hosted an online forum for the public distributed throughout the nation to submit ideas.

In July 2018, after a year-long delay, White House officials told the public the workshops it was holding to “co-create” a new National Action Plan for Open Government for the Open Government Partnership would be the “start of a process” and opened public comments.

Then the Trump administration went silent for six months, missed the deadline for submitting a new plan.  The USA was placed under review by the Open Government Partnership, before quietly releasing a weak open government plan last week.

To date, no officials, public information officers, Cabinet secretaries or the President have said anything about it.

Continued White House and U.S. government silence about the new plan is beyond discouraging.

That void will further undermines public confidence in this administration’s sincerity regarding upholding basic democratic principles, from the public’s right to know to public participation in government to the consent of the governed to protecting and defending free press.
As always, actions speak louder than words – the new federal climate change advisory panel is structured to avoid public records – but words do matter.
The entire world has heard the President of the United States repeatedly call the press the “enemy of the people,” even after being warned that his words have had a negative impact.
Not introducing this new open government plan at an event, alerting the press, and taking questions falls far short of the bare minimum we should expect of the United States of America rolling out a National Action Plan for Open Government.
An anonymous White House official admitted to Fedscoop that this plan is based on existing data and management priorities. Putting aside the irony of the White House being unwilling to defend an open government initiative on the record, that violates not just the spirit but the rules of OGP’s standards for participation and co-creation.
These plans are supposed to reflect public input and the priorities of civil society groups in workshops, not just what a government is already doing.
Now that the plan is out, there’s no recourse beyond telling the American public and the media that the U.S government didn’t show good faith on the promises made in the workshops.
That’s not to say that expectations were particularly high for this plan. No watchdog group issues a statement yet, which suggests that literally no one who works on these issues full-time expected this administration to commit to doing anything on transparency, accountability or ethics that it didn’t want to do already.
That same anonymous White House official defended the weak plan and anemic consultation “on background,” when asked about it by Fedscoop.
On the one hand, there’s an aspect of such ironic opacity isn’t new: back in 2011, the State Department mandated that “senior officials” briefing the press before the launch of the Open Government Partnership would do so “on background.”

But many former White House officials introduced and defended past plans and the Obama administration’s record in press briefings, calls, conferences and social media, from Beth Noveck to Todd Park to Megan Smith to Cori Zarek.

President Barack Obama also talked about it on the world stage.

None of that is happening in 2019.

After years of democratic regression and delays, if American public wants to see meaningful progress on transparency, accountability or ethics in U.S. government, it should call on Congress to enact reforms, not look to the Trump White House or a slate of milquetoast commitments to a voluntary multi-stakeholder initiative to heal what ails our body politic.

3 thoughts on “Open Government Partnership IRM finds backsliding in the USA

  1. Pingback: Shadows and celebrations for Sunshine Week 2019 | E Pluribus Unum

  2. Pingback: US House hearing on transparency misses the open government forest for the FOIA trees | E Pluribus Unum

  3. Pingback: How federal agencies can make better /open government webpages | E Pluribus Unum

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