What was missing from President Biden’s remarks at the Open Government Summit

President Biden speaks at the 2021 Open Government Partnership Summit

On December 15th, President Joe Biden delivered pre-recorded remarks to the Open Government Partnership Summit, an international conference that convened dozens of nations in South Korea to discuss the past, present, and future of open government. It’s not clear how many Americans or even the reporters who cover the White House beat for a living heard the president’s committing to open government at 5 AM Eastern Time or watched the video the Open Government Partnership uploaded to Twitter. (It has 1.1 thousand views & counting.) Oddly, the Office of the Press Secretary has still not posted President Biden’s remarks to WhiteHouse.gov more than 24 hours after he delivered them.

A transcript of his speech at the OGP Summit follows, annotated in-line with links, followed by a list of what he did not announce.

“Thank you President Moon for hosting this year’s Open Government Partnership Summit. You know, when President Obama launched the Open Government Partnership in 2011, the goal was to advance transparency and accountability, bolster citizen engagement, and harness new technology to help strengthen government. Today, those objectives are more important than ever, and democracies around the world must prove they can still deliver for the needs of the people and meet the challenges of today’s world.”

And this 10 year old milestone is an opportunity, both to take stock of what we have achieved through Open Government Partnership, and to recommit to all the work that remains to be done.

Last week, as part of the first Summit for Democracy, the United States made commitments to strengthen our democracy home and to promote democratic renewal around the world. And we challenged other nations to make concrete commitments that will bolster democracy globally through this coming year of action.

The key focus of many of those commitments is countering the corruption that eats away at the foundations of democratic governments, and makes government less effective by draining away public resources and exacerbating inequities.

That’s why, for the first time, I designated combating corruption is the top US national security priority in my administration, and one that we’ve launched a landmark anti-corruption strategy to accomplish.

I urge every nation in the Open Government Partnership to take up a call to action to fight the scourge of corruption. And let us stand with those in civil society and courageous citizens around the world who are demanding transparency of their governments. And let us all work together to hold governments accountable for the people they serve.

I look forward to seeing all the progress we will continue to make together. Thank you, thank you thank you, thank you, very much.”

As the relevance and legitimacy of the multilateral organization to federal government and politics in the United States depends on renewed White House leadership, the Open Government Partnership Secretariat welcomed a President of the United States to the stage – even if it was to deliver canned remarks on a stage unchallenged by the press or good governance watchdogs that challenged other nations to do take actions he has not.

After all, the OGP went dormant after the USA published a weak plan in 2019 and the most corrupt administration in US history ignored it and undermined the rule of law. In contrast, the Biden-Harris White House completely ignored OGP in its first year in office, only holding its first public meeting in November on the eve of the Summit but failing to announce or promote it to the press or all Americans. (Video of the meeting is still not online.)

Unlike his peers, President Biden did not announce any new commitments to transparency and an accountability or restore any old ones, like U.S. participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

President Biden did not reference the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA.gov, or the Open Government Data Act and Data.gov. He did not announce the Office of Management and Budget had issued long-overdue guidance on open government data, pending since 2019.

President Biden did not hail the Census Bureau’s Opportunity Project, Challenge.gov, or CitizenScience.gov, as GSA officials did at the public meeting.

President Biden did not recognize the challenges of overclassification and declassification, the importance of whistleblowers, decry secret law at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, celebrate press freedom, or call for more transparency and accountability in the legislative and judicial branch.

President Biden did not invite all Americans to participate in co-creating a fifth National Action Plan for Open Government in January 2022 – despite the public remarks of GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan to the OGP Summit – nor did he announce the restoration of a White House open government initiative.

President Biden did not specifically celebrate the civil servants and institutions in the federal government that have kept open government alive over the past years, or praise the Freedom of Information Act officers charged with upholding the public’s right to know.

President Biden did not announce that the EPA would be sunsetting FOIAOnline.gov and call on the nation’s journalists, watchdogs, and technologists to help transform the public’s right to know for the 21st century.

President Biden did exhort other nations to “stand with those in civil society and courageous citizens around the world who are demanding transparency of their governments” while he has largely failed to do so himself, “an to work together to hold governments accountable for the people they serve” after his administration ignored the call of a coalition of our union’s top good governance organizations to embrace a more open government.

It was important to see a President celebrate open government again before the world, but not to hear words without concrete action and the full backing of the White House communications resources amplifying his remarks. The speech may have give the State Department and USAID cover to keep encouraging participation in OGP internationally, but insufficient to give OGP renewed relevance and legitimacy domestically.

The new anti-corruption strategy is both meaningful and significant, but relegating US participation in the Open Government Partnership to the opacity of obscurity will not build back transparency and accountability better than under the Obama administration.

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