(Note: this post has been updated since it was first published—see below)
It’s Sunshine Week again, and in that spirit I want to share a recent story about open government. Two weeks ago, a government professional from the Republic of Korea looked over at me and, through an interpreter, said he was going to tell me why their political system is better than America’s.
It was an interesting moment for me. At the meeting were three additional South Korean professionals, and I listened attentively as their interpreter related the gist of the argument:
- Corporations in South Korea are prohibited from spending money on political activity.
- Individuals can spend up to $5,000 per year on National Assembly races, and they can only give to four candidates per year.
- Any spending above $3,000 must be disclosed.
How did I find myself in this situation? For starters, it wasn’t the first time! One of the many pleasant aspects about working at the Sunlight Foundation is the simple act of talking about open government with other interested parties. In this case, it was a delegation of professionals from Korea. The trip was arranged by World Learning, as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program administered by the U.S. State Department. Yesterday’s was the fifth such meeting I’ve participated in since I started at Sunlight—previously, my colleagues and I discussed transparency with a delegation of Dutch officials, an activist/videographer from Australia, a political science professor from Colombia, and officials from Latin America.
I was a little playful in that last paragraph, but the meetings are more than just “pleasant.” According to the State Department, almost “300 IVLP alumni are current or former Heads of Government or Chiefs of State.” Alumni include British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Last year alone, more than 4,400 people visited the U.S. through the program, and 190,000 have participated since 1940.
Ambassador Kenton Keith is the Senior Vice President of Meridian International Center, one of seven program agencies that facilitate IVLP for the State Department. He told me U.S. embassies around the world select participants: “These people are selected because the embassies regard them as people of either present or near future importance to areas of interest to the United States.” They then spend 2-3 weeks in the United States for meetings with counterparts and for general orientation.
“They have a several-day presentation in Washington with government, NGOs and appropriate bodies, and then they go to other cities in the country,” Kenton said. “When visitors go out into the country they are hosted by a network of volunteer groups under the umbrella of the National Council of International Visitors. They help them to get appointments with the people they need to see, and to get a feel for the society, the culture and the values of the United States.”
Kenton describes IVLP as one of the “most valuable kinds of programs that we operate as a country.” He told me participants can be anything from journalists to scientists, teachers, politicians and museum directors. “They obviously become familiar with the United States,” he said, “an important country to most anybody in the world, and are often able to seize important networking opportunities with people in the same field and who have the same interests.”
Not every meeting I attended was part of the IVLP, but they all have provided an incredible array of benefits for our organization. Most notably, we learn about the ways officials practice open government in different countries. When we met with the delegation from Latin America, for example, we learned that some countries have FOIA laws that are significantly better for citizens. In Mexico, all requests for public documents (think FOIA) are posted online. In other countries, all requested documents are posted online. Here in America, you can use the FOIA process to see what others people have requested (a nice little trick of journalists to avoid getting scooped), but the only person who can see the results is the person who submitted the request in the first place.
Aside from the policy perspectives these meetings can bring to light, they also provide the basis for some incredible best practices discussions and allow participants to forge collaborative partnerships. I met last year with professor Monica Pachon Buitrago of the University of the Andes. She was developing a Web site to track members of the Colombian legislature, something similar to OpenCongress.org. The site, CongresoVisible.org, is now up and running. We can learn from one another, by sharing which site features are most useful to readers or swapping code modules. When an open-government advocate from Australia was in D.C., we discussed some of the challenges he faces in that country: Generating interest among citizens, convincing officials that that a transparent government is good for them, and creating partnerships with other organizations and the media in Australia. Turns out, those are very similar to the challenges we have here in America.
As we prepare to launch our campaign, we’re having similar discussions with individuals across the country. Activists, bloggers, and citizens are asking how they can help make their local and state governments more open, accessible and accountable. One of the best ways of figuring that out is to see how others have succeeded.
Which brings us back to the gentlemen from the Republic of Korea. The delegates were genuinely interested in the way members of the U.S. House of Representatives disclose office expenditures, and any impact that disclosure has had on Members or staff. We discussed the White House visitor logs, and Paul’s story last month using the logs to examine the PhRMA deal. Finally, I answered some questions about the Citizens United decision: What it means for our movement, what the proposed legislative responses might be, and how we look at campaign finance disclosure in the future.
That led into the exchange I described at the beginning, and a more in-depth dialogue on disclosure. We spoke about the differences between our two systems of government, and I hope they learned as much from me as I learned from them.
From what I understand, that’s the whole point.
Author’s note: At the request of the U.S. State Department, we’ve removed the specific titles of the individuals from the Republic of Korea. We were informed, in the course of reporting this piece, that IVLP meetings are supposed to be off-the-record. While this was not conveyed to us until after the meeting took place, we don’t want the delegates to experience any repercussions for what was said during the meeting.