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Preparing for the US National Action Plan

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This coming Tuesday, President Obama will deliver a speech alongside the UN General Assembly, coinciding with the unveiling of the National Action Plan describing its new open government commitments. This is the result of the Open Government Partnership, which formally debuted in July.

Next week's speech will kick off another round of government announcements about open government policies both here and abroad. Sunlight and other NGOs around the world will be asked to explain the meaning of what our respective heads of state have committed to do.

Ambitious Undertaking

The National Action Plans can have significant value, so long as governments take the opportunity to commit to meaningful reform and learn from each others' strengths. If they don't, the project could waste time and detract from important domestic transparency work that still needs to be addressed. The US should also recognize the transparency issues where they're clearly behind other countries, such as tracking government spending, or contractor misconduct (where Indonesia, Brazil, and the UK have all been leaders).

For Sunlight's part, we've participated in a number of the administration's consultations on their Action Plan, attended meetings with administration officials, and submitted our suggestions for what their plan might do best to address. We've also talked with other groups and worked with OpentheGovernment.org, who assembled a deep roster of important ideas waiting to be implemented.

We're anxious to hear what President Obama discusses in his remarks on Tuesday, and to see the details of the National Action Plan. When Obama first entered office, his administration's Open Government Initiative made significant strides in creating a more open executive branch. But their work has also stalled significantly. The President's dedicated senior transparency staffer was never replaced, and administration officials have started referring to transparency as something they've already achieved, and as something they didn't get enough credit for, instead of a complex, ongoing effort that takes dedicated effort and attention.

Domestic Transparency 

The administration shouldn't be starved for transparency issues they could address. A number important decisions faced by the country have been made in secret, and now a small group of 12 Members of Congress are replacing the work of the rest of the Congress, all while being lobbied and accepting campaign checks that won't be disclosed until their work is done (or not at all, in the case of lobbying contacts).

The financial reporting systems the government uses offer abysmally bad data, and Members of Congress often evade a fake earmark ban by strong-arming agencies into serving their districts, despite an Executive Order designed to prevent it. The government still relies on an expensive, proprietary system for tracking corporate identities, locking them into an unhealthy reliance on a system that limits public tracking of corporate influence and limits corporate accountability. (These and other concerns, and remedies to address them, can be found in the list compiled by OpentheGovernment.org.)

We hope that the Open Government Partnership creates an opportunity to fix these and other related issues. Perhaps some of them will be addressed in President Obama's speech on Tuesday.

Role of NGOs

When we're all asked to evaluate our respective governments' National Action Plans, we'll face a few options in evaluating their work.

If we compare the administration's National Action Plan against what came before it, there's really no contest. Nothing like this has been done before (at least on an international level), and the Open Government Partnership is certain to push governments around the world to enact better policies and strengthen democratic norms around transparency. Countries' best impulses are validated, international relationships are strengthened and public expectations are raised.

If we compare the National Action Plan against the governance issues countries face, and against what the plans could be, then it's a very different evaluation. Based on our experience thus far, the process sometimes looks more about the US advancing foreign policy goals than it is about empowering domestic reform. The vehicle of the National Action Plans may end up looking similar to the Open Government Directive, which similarly caused an enormous amount of good to happen, while also exposing the limitations of such aspirational government declarations.

If the governments involved in the Open Government Partnership are trying to demonstrate what it means to commit to accountability and transparency on the world stage, then NGOs face a similar responsibility. We're tasked with helping to cause change, while also being objective judges of the performance of political actors and their imperfect incentives. As Sunlight approaches next week's announcements, we'll have both roles in mind, as the US helps start a national movement for transparency, and we continue to face serious accountability issues domestically.

Global Integrity's Nathaniel Heller brings up a similar point in his post earlier this week, writing about the tension between data-based reforms and other complex structural issues:

Instead of fetishizing open data portals for the sake of having open data portals, I’d rather see governments incorporating open data as a way to address more fundamental structural challenges around extractives (through maps and budget data), the political process (through real-time disclosure of campaign contributions), or budget priorities (through online publication of budget line-items).
This is a very familiar tension for us at Sunlight, especially as we have a foot firmly planted on both sides of his frame -- advocating for broad, aspirational data policies, while at the same time fighting tooth-and-nail for meaningful reforms for how influence and procedure are disclosed to the public.

In the end, these approaches reflect the dual roles we play as NGOs -- working with governments, while also judging them, and responding to the failures and shortcomings we see, while also building new systems based on the things we envision.

 

Update: This post was edited to reflect that the Open Government Partnership only formally debuted in July 2011.