The future of the Open Government Partnership depends on White House leadership

The following is a brief prepared for civil society leaders in the United States considering how or whether to participate in the Open Government Partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative launched a decade ago.

Executive Summary

There is a bonafide opportunity for advocates to push the Biden administration to connect good government, anti-corruption, freedom of information, press freedom, civic literacy, and participatory democracy together in a cohesive national strategy, but only if good government groups work in coalition to refuse to participate without concrete actions by the White House prior to the Summit.

As with other voluntary multilateral stakeholder initiatives, the future success of the Open Government Partnership will depend upon the direct involvement by President Biden, partnerships with media (and perhaps tech) companies, and “going big” on transformative commitments that will excite the imagination of the American public and review faith in the relevance of participation in these kinds of governance processes. Small, technocratic initiatives will not inspire or engage a polarized, angry population rife with disinformation in a low trust environment.

While this doesn’t mean that meaningful regulatory, administrative, policy, or personnel commitments won’t be on the table, involving Congress in reforming itself and enacting reforms remains paramount for both domestic relevance of the Open Government Partnership and enduring changes.

To rebuild badly damaged global credibility on good governance and democracy, this White House will need to acknowledge past mistakes and commit to working to pass reforms and invest in personnel and policy changes, from open justice initiatives to ethics reforms. Delegating a civil servant in the USA to ask for feedback on broken commitments was not a good start.

Background

For those unfamiliar, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Partnership is a global multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI) that acts as a collective governance mechanism for national governments and their publics to create commitments towards transparency and accountability reforms and tracks implementation. As in other MSIs, participants voluntarily make collective commitments towards achieving a given goal. The Paris Accord on climate change may be the MSI best known to the public,

Past and current OGP commitments have included reforms aimed at increasing public access to information, improving good governance, reducing corruption and improving service delivery using new technologies, and engaging the public in public business and processes. This FAQ lays out the history of the initiative and organization up to 2018. 

After the OGP went dormant in the United States after the USA published a weak plan in 2019, it ceased to be relevant to domestic politics or US government, for reasons explored further below.. While other democratic nations and their leaders continued to participate and engage their publics, the Trump White House stopped making public statements about OGP and the plan in 2019 after a consultation that failed to meet OGP’s “co-creation” standards for public participation. 

The conclusion from a decade of experience with OGP is that it doesn’t work in the USA — and likely other nations — if a given nation’s leader is corrupt, untrustworthy, & fundamentally anti-democratic. If a president doesn’t believe in democracy and attacks it, adherence in a voluntary multi-stakeholder initiative amounts to gauze in a gale.

Without Presidential leadership and high expectations for elected officials to hold themselves accountable to various norms of transparency and accountability, from disclosing tax returns to acknowledging and supporting the role of a free press to standards for veracity in public statements regarding policy, public health, or science, OGP doesn’t work in the USA – or presumably elsewhere. 

What good governance watchdog or other civil society entity who participated in the co-creation process view OGP as a key point of leverage with the Trump White House or US government? 

Who saw OGP as a point of leverage to stop the Trump administration from rolling back past OGP commitments or voluntary transparency, from visitor logs to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative? 

The USA stayed in OGP thanks to the efforts of former White House official Matt Lira and many US civil servants, which enabled it to continue to operate in countries where the necessary condition for good faith participation existed: a world leader who believed in democracy as both a principle and practice. 

In 2021, OGP is being led by career civil servants at GSA and State, not a senior official, much less the President. It and its processes are irrelevant to Congress, where fundamental transparency and accountability reforms originate in the USA. Few Americans have ever heard of OGP, much less participated in any of the “co-creation workshops.” When OGP made the news because of President Obama’s involvement, US outlets tended to be skeptical, or simply ignore it.

Major, mainstream US news media outlets still do not regard OGP as relevant to power or policy. For the most part, most of the press remains unaware of OGP after a decade, as has most of Congress. Negative IRM reports or letters don’t generate headlines or political pressure in the USA: blockbuster investigations, lies, corruption, and attempted self coups do. 

The Opportunity Ahead

In the spring of 2021, the Open Government Partnership hosted a virtual event discussing what it would take to revive the US process with the new administration. The paper is online. A recording of that forum is here:

It’s possible that OGP process could move forward in a healthy, productive way in a domestic context if the United States government and foundations make a series of policy and personnel commitments, but that hasn’t happened in the months since.

A key overarching conclusion from the U.S. experience with OGP comes through from this paper, though. Voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives don’t work if a given nation’s leader is corrupt, untrustworthy, and fundamentally anti-democratic. 

If a president doesn’t believe in democracy and attacks it, adherence in a voluntary multi-stakeholder initiative amounts to gauze protecting a porch in a gale. If there’s no good faith partner on the other side of the table that civil society organizations can depend on to respond to letters, implement reforms and commit to meaningful significant commitments – or those they do not want to implement – then participating in OGP co-creation could actively harm other efforts because it creates the imprimatur of good governance under the administration without its reality.

That’s openwashing, not open government.

Under those circumstances, OGP’s steering committee should take action to suspend a nation’s participation instead of signing off on extended deadlines or allowing an administration’s claims of good faith participation to remain unchecked when co-creation guidelines and policy regression are so clearly violated. 

That didn’t happen in the USA in recent years. OGP’s leadership and members of the steering had little to say about the presidency’s descent into authoritarianism and illiberalism until after President Trump left office, and the Internal Review Mechanism pulled its punches regarding the administration going silent and increasingly regressing over time.

Key Steps to Building Relevance

If the Biden administration now intends to build US participation in OGP “back better,” there are a series of steps it could take to rebuild trust with the American public, civil society organization, and leaders who would be partners in a restored dialogue, starting with restoring past commitments and showing open government is a presidential priority. 

First, President Biden needs to reify the relevance of the Open Government Partnership to reform efforts and ask Americans to participate. 

There is no replacement for a world leader’s involvement, much less the Presidential leadership, and there are endless opportunities offered by this historic moment. For instance, Vice President Kamala Harris could lead be leading an open justice initiative modeled on her work at California, developing a national clearinghouse of criminal justice data, like the use of force by police or misconduct files, and extended the FOIA to private prisons and government contractors. Restoring wh.gov/open is a good symbolic shift here.

Second, involve major media outlets and social media platforms. 

The US has a vibrant independent press and powerful watchdogs that use FOIA and investigative journalism to reveal official corruption paired with an independent judiciary that mandated disclosures after lawsuits. No open government advocate was able to use OGP as a platform to make the Trump White House ethical or the President transparent and accountable. 

No one in the DC media ecosystem, national broadcast or print media seemed to care about OGP going dormant in the USA, including what the Internal Review Mechanism said about the Trump administration — unlike other nations. Sycophantic far-right media outlets aligned with the administration echoed its propaganda about transparency, while the most corrupt administration in American history made a mockery of US participation in global good governance. 

OGP’s legitimacy and relevance rely not just upon the consent of the governed but also on the public’s participation. In addition to online ideation platforms like Ideascale or Github or a rebooted White House petition platform, the White House will need to do more than just use US government media assets to promote its initiatives. The administration needs to “meet Americans where we are,” online and off. 

Global media and tech partners will put critical pressure on the US government to perform better to have any shot at regaining global leadership position on open government. Media involvement will give civil society organizations more leverage to extract commitments that the Biden administration doesn’t want to make or implement. OGP can’t act as a platform for non-governmental entities without the leverage presidential involvement and public awareness provide.

Involving tech companies that profit from surveillance capitalism will carry profound complexities, especially while they’re under scrutiny by regulators for privacy and anti-trust violations, but injecting prompts to participate into social feeds would dramatically increase participation and awareness. Their self-interest in being seen as partners in good governance could make such partnerships viable.

Third, involve Congress and the judiciary branch

The OGP itself recommends parliamentary involvement: “Some of the key aspirations of the open government movement – placing citizens back at the heart of government, defending democracy, protecting & promoting civic space – simply cannot be met by the executive alone: they require legislative support.”

If President Biden and Vice President Harris invest in this partnership, it could be a meaningful platform for civil society to achieve limited reforms within the executive branch’s discretion, from executive orders to policies. If the administration expanded it to other branches of US government, however, it would be far more transformative. USAG Garland backing legislation on access to reporters’ records is what such a commitment could look like in practice. (Garland’s meeting with leaders from media organizations is in of itself both evidence of good faith and the irrelevance of OGP to the current mechanisms through which power is being wielded, checked, or negotiated.)

If there are reforms the Biden administration or the Supreme Court don’t want to adopt or adapt in OGP,  however, civil society groups and the public might understandably limit participation and continue to focus limited capacity towards reform through direct advocacy in Congress, regulatory agencies, and the White House.

Four, create a multi-stakeholder network.

OGP works better in countries where there is a vibrant civil society coalition, like the United Kingdom and Canada. The USA never did, relying instead on the coalition capacity of OpenTheGovernment. If the White House is serious about co-creation commitments and being accountable for delivering, part of re-engaging needs to include working with philanthropies and nonprofits to establish such a network and then lead, with Cabinet officials meeting with advocates regularly and internal working groups coordinating cross-agency priority goals on FOIA, rulemaking, and challenges.

Finaly, go big on good governance

For instance, Congress established a beneficial ownership registry at the US Treasury in the NDAA and then overrode Trump’s veto to enact it at the end of 2020 —  but the legislation did not make it a public registry. Committing to open beneficial ownership data like the United Kingdom did in 2013, after studying and mitigating the issues other nations have had, would be significant. hat would be genuinely transformative for anti-corruption efforts not only in the USA, but around the world.

If the USA and UK’s financial industry & regulators collaborated on a commitment to combine, clean, and maintain a global registry, many other nations might see concrete gains and measurable impact on corruption from open data disclosure, re-use, and applications. Anti-corruption and open justice are obvious transformative commitments.

So too would making federal court records free by modernizing the PACER system through legislation, reforming the classification system and investing in declassification and redaction technology and personnel. Or both Houses of Congress committing to robust, distributed remote participation, from bill drafting and markups to oversight and nomination hearings to voting. The Accountability 2021 Agenda has many more options: https://www.accountability2021.org/

Conclusion

Civil society and government leaders at OGP’s recent “community briefing” in October 2021 did not fully grapple with these issues when challenged. The absence of White House officials at the briefing calls into question whether the Biden Harris Administration understands how much trust in the relevance or utility of OGP to enacting reforms proportionate to the glaring flaws in American democracy has been eroded within the good governance community in the USA.

For the Open Government Partnership to have any realistic shot at being relevant to domestic politics or reform in the United States, this White House has to be willing to make commitments it does not want to make, and then show progress towards implementing them, every month. It must literally build OGP back better.

As the Biden administration cannot diplomatically extricate itself from participation in this global multilateral initiative, however, there is an opportunity for the good governance watchdogs, press freedom groups, and open government advocates to use its inability to walk away as leverage to extract good faith evidence of commitments to come back to round tables to craft a new plan.

If OGP is going to be relevant, the next “co-creation” of an open government plan can’t just be an opaque, inside-the-Beltway affair conducted under Chatham House rules.

It must not not exclude good governance groups, leaders, advocates, and activists from workshops and meetings, instead engaging Americans from every state and territory. 

President Biden and Vice President Harris need to be directly involved in committing to major, transformative reforms to transparency and accountability and engaging Americans about it.

Ambassador Rice will be in a key role ensuring follow-through domestically, as will Attorney General Garland, Secretary Yellen, Secretary Blinken, and USAID Director Power. Running OGP out of the State Department as a diplomatic initiative like other multi-stakeholder initiatives, at present, can’t become the norm. 

Unless a presidency invests OGP with importance and legitimacy through participation and acknowledgement, it has no formal binding power. It’s all soft pressure through the need to perform in the eyes of other nations and the public if there is a high-profile global event. 

The upcoming OGP Summit and Democracy Summit will be one of the few points of leverage at which civil society can exert real pressure to get concessions by acting in unison to condition participation on commitments or evidence of meeting a commitment, as expressed in a policy or personnel or disclosure change.

Civil society groups should use maximal leverage to refuse to come to the table until the Biden-Harris administration takes action on the subject of various coalition letters. There is a useful precedent in Mexico, where groups left in protest after government surveillance.

These could include some or all of the following executive actions advocates view as meaningful evidence of good faith: 

  • Issue executive orders on Freedom of Information and open government
  • Appoint a senior official accountable for ethics and governance
  • Reboot the White House petitions platform
  • Issue overdue guidance for implementation of the Open Government Data Act
  • Implement the recommendations on transparency for the nuclear stockpile from the Public Interest Declassification Board 
  • Acknowledge and respond to coalition letters regarding good governance reforms and set up ongoing roundtables. (“The process is the product” here.)
  • Disclose virtual visitor logs from the White House
  • Have the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice issue a “release to one, release to all” policy for FOIA

If the administration won’t commit to enacting meaningful reforms —  like on ethics, as OGP’s Joseph Foti recommended so many times — or those they do not want to implement (making visitor logs permanent, surveillance reform, or beneficial ownership transparency), then participating in OGP co-creation could actively harm other efforts because it creates the imprimatur of good governance under the administration without its reality. 

To avoid being embarrassed on the international stage, President Biden and Vice President Harris shouldn’t just acknowledge the letters on open government and FOIA they’ve received, but take concrete actions, now, that show that their administration can be trusted to honor OGP’s co-creation standards in 2022 and implement commitments in the years to come.

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