What’s at stake in the future of U.S. participation in the Open Government Partnership



The dominant political binary of the 21st century won’t be left versus right, but open versus closed.

That’s the observation that author Alec Ross shared more than six years ago, while he was still serving at the U.S. State Department. The events of the past decade have lent strength to this thesis about political polarities in our changing world, particularly in the wake of a presidential election saw his former boss at the State Department defeated by a candidate who defied traditional Republican orthodoxies on the campaign trail, including foreign policy, trade, economics, entitlements, family leave policy and a host of norms for disclosure and public rhetoric that spanned both parties.

While the defeat of a far-right candidate in Austria’s election this week blunts the narrative that populism is on the march in the wake of Brexit in the U.K. and the U.S. presidential election, the uncertainty of Italy’s political future casts into stark relief the transitions that lie ahead in 2017. Upcoming elections in France and Germany are likely to define Western European politics and policy for the remainder of the decade. Today, the emerging shape of our politics seems as likely to follow the contours of nationalism infused by populism as the technocratic governance style that has typified Western democracies in recent years.

In the United States, we cannot take for granted any democratic norms for transparency and accountability. President-elect Donald Trump was elected without disclosing his tax returns, a breach of political norms that spans more than four decades of presidential politics. To date, he and his transition team have given no sign that his stance towards disclosure will change in office, nor will his criticism of journalists or satirical programming that depicts his words or actions unfavorably.

At the Open Government Summit in Paris this week, we should expect to hear questions asked about the next White House and open government on the global stage. We are unlikely to hear direct answers about what Trump means for open government from White House officials.

This is the immediate future that open government advocates, transparency actors and institutions dedicated to government accountability must anticipate, interrogate and confront. The value of open government forms and freedom of information laws may never be more clear to the public than in the years ahead, where the antagonism towards a free press and scientific data displayed this year may be amplified in the next White House. Even if open government is no panacea, it is an essential foundation of democracies built upon public will and self-governance. Government accountability depends upon transparency, which in turn depends upon our public servants accepting the role disclosure plays in wielding power.

Mandatory disclosure of information and investigative journalism may have less impact on populist movements than ever. We’re facing historic lows around trust in government and media institutions not to mention the explosion of fake news that now casts doubt upon the veracity of reporting and demands increased scrutiny by all information consumers.

Consider climate data. During President George W. Bush’s tenure, data from the Environmental Protection Agency was taken offline. Today, we see the emergence of networked climate denialism that dismisses a global scientific consensus and finds favorable treatment in the U.S. House of Representatives. There is no reason to expect that other agencies and institutions that produce data will not also be questioned and undermined. This poses a direct risk to open government data initiatives that publish evidence that contradicts in the narratives advanced by populist leaders. Fact-checks by media institutions will be insufficient to shift public opinion or knowledge when those same institutions have been undermined and delegitimized. The effect of “fake news” upon millions of people has been to call into question all news, which in turn further weakens the capacity of media outlets to hold power to account.

Multiple other vectors exist for open government data to be affected, extending beyond simply taking databases offline. Programs could be defunded, as seems likely to occur with NASA’s Earth observation efforts. Programs starved of funding may produce lower quality data, which may in turn provide a rationale for further cuts. Political appointees could affect the frequency of disclosure, as occurred in Kansas with its economic statistics. Officials could also cut down data, removing fields or otherwise subtly diminishing and its specificity. Privacy and security will be used to justify some redactions, as is already the case today: Look no further than the FCC citing the privacy of corporations as justification for not releasing the targets of the consumer complaints it is now publishing, wrapping itself in the mantle of openness in the process.

Ground zero for this phenomenon might be the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which publishes data on employment and spending that contradicts what the president-elect said on the campaign trail, or the Justice Department’s data on violent crime. The future of police data at the national level could also be in question, with respect to the standardization and collection of use of force by departments. While the transparency genie is out of the bottle in major American cities, White House leadership will have influence on pace and manner of future disclosures.

So, too, will that leadership affect global standards. While the Obama administration has had a mixed record on open government, there is no denying its fundamental role in convening, expanding and supporting the Open Government Partnership (OGP) at the highest level. On his last trip to Europe, President Obama spoke about the initiative, hailed as his signature governance initiative, as a way to “ensure that governments exist as a means to serve the interests of citizens, and not the other way around.”

While the impact of the United States withdrawing from OGP would be a singular challenge to the effort, it’s not inconceivable. The president-elect and his transition team have indicated being open to withdrawing from the historic climate change agreement signed here in Paris, as well as long-standing trade deals. A nonbinding agreement that commits the United States to dozens of open government initiatives domestically and submits its performance to a formal independent review might be dismissed as a “bad deal” especially if other countries follow Hungary, which just withdrew from OGP on the eve of the 2016 summit.

To back away from leading global anti-corruption initiatives would be a tremendous mistake. Members of the business and foreign-policy community would inform the president-elect and his incoming cabinet, but given how much credence Trump is currently giving to diplomatic or intelligence experts, it’s not beyond the realm of the possible. Unfortunately, American leadership on press freedom is now even more question, which poses a global danger to the journalists who risk their freedom and lives to report on corruption.

One of the best arguments to make for preserving and extending the Obama administration’s open government initiatives, including continuing participation in OGP, will be to highlight the importance of open and transparent societies to economic output, combating crime and corruption, and providing stability for entrepreneurs, charities and nonprofits to operate.

Congressional oversight and support for sunshine laws, recent reforms like the DATA Act, the extractive industry transparency initiative and renewed interest in disclosures of foreign influence will be crucial outside of the new administration. If the United States is to avoid the worst excesses of the Bush administration, particularly with respect to the uncounted monies that flowed into the Middle East and defense contracting, domestic accountability measures must be protected and enforced.

Much will rely upon the choice Trump makes as to who he nominates as secretary of State. Given the launch of OGP under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. participation in it was not in much doubt in her administration. Trump, however, presents a blank slate, with no writing on any Facebook wall or Twitter account to suggest how he will embrace, affirm, ignore or reject transparency and accountability laws and initiatives, both domestically and internationally. It is too soon to judge how the newest president-elect will proceed, but it isn’t too early to be critical of his allergy to transparency norms for disclosure in his business or political affairs.

One of President Obama’s most under-appreciated legacies may be a global partnership founded on the premise that the United States would continue to be a beacon for open government and democratic norms for years to come. If that participation amounts to transparency theater by an administration hostile to public accountability, however, its value can and should be questioned by other states and members of civil society.

In 2017, the country that could end up being subject to unexpected, valuable pressure to meet the commitments in its national action plan by dozens of countries participating in OGP may end up being the United States of America. Should that effort fail, a global tide of populism may bring with it more closed societies, which provide fertile ground for authoritarianism.

Preventing that future by upholding democratic norms for freedom of information, access, distribution and the press will be primary goals in the years ahead, from D.C. to Paris to Tokyo to Buenos Aires and beyond.