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The Open Government Partnership: Where We Are Now and Possible Next Steps

September 30, 2011

National Security Archive director Tom Blanton (front row, center) narrowly misses being obscured by President Obama's mit.

On September 20, 2011 President Obama attended the Open Government Partnership (OGP) summit in New York City. The media paid little attention to the meeting of 46 government leaders, save for the limited coverage of President Obama’s photo-op flop where he blocked the face of Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj – the president of Mongolia – while waving during a group photo being taken to commemorate the assembly.

While the visual is humorous, the bigger issue at hand – and being ignored – is the mission of the OGP and the purpose of the meeting.

The OGP is the product of a September 2010 address delivered by President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly where he called for a sustained global commitment to open governments. In response, a group of civil society organizations and national governments formed the OGP to promote issues of transparency and government accountability. In order to become a member of the organization, governments – with the aid of private citizens – are required to devise and implement action plans that achieve these ends.

The OGP’s website states that their goal is to “make governments better” by making them more transparent, accountable, and with more institutions that enable their respective citizens to track their progress. To reach this goal, consistent political dedication is required to create a system of government accountability and self-disclosure – an admittedly difficult task given the average rate of political turnover in democratic countries. Justifiably, the OGP’s website states
that this takes “sustained effort and investment.” In the case of the United States this may require either passing legislation that requires Federal agencies to provide consistent quantitative proof that they are implementing
accountability improvements, or fostering an environment that encourages greater levels of accountability among these agencies through various incentive programs.

At present, the Open Government Partnership consists of 46 members, including its 8 founding members – co-chairs Brazil and the United States, as well as Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. At their summit, respective government officials from the 46 members seemed genuinely pleased, if not a little surprised, by the level of response and commitment the conference had garnered. Though, perhaps in light of recent international events, particularly the Arab Spring and rising concern of the state of affairs in the Eurozone, we should not be surprised to see so many countries preempting calls for government reform and proactively vocalizing interest in establishing truly accountable and transparent government agencies.

For his part, President Obama stated, “The more open we are, the more willing we are to head constructive criticism, the more effective we will be,” and declared that “access to information is a right that is universal.”  In his address to the assembly Obama announced a plan that outlines 26 action points to achieve greater political transparency here in the US – including launching a “We the People” campaign that will allow public petitions to be directly reviewed by The White House,  seeking to improve whistleblower protection,  and implementing a program that would require that all Federal agencies that administer foreign assistance disclose the specifics of their budgets and project details on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard.

Several action points from Obama’s speech are aimed to improve the Freedom of Information Act and declassification processes, including:

  1. Professionalizing FOIA Administration. Continuing work on a new civil service personnel category (or job series) for officials who specialize in administering FOIA and other information programs.
  2.  Lead a Multi-Agency Effort. This multi-agency effort will work to declassify historically valuable classified records in which more than one agency has an interest, and work to address the backlog of 400 million pages previously accessioned to the National Archives. The Center will also oversee the development of standard declassification processes and training to improve and align declassification reviews across agencies. The Center will consider public input when developing its prioritization plan, as well as report on its progress, provide opportunities for public comment in a variety of media, and host at least one public forum to update the public and answer questions. (The National Declassification Center was actually established by President Obama on December 29, 2009 by Executive Order 13526 (Section 3.7), though the overall results of the NDC to date have been mixed.)
  3. Monitor Agency Implementation of Plans. Taking account of the views and perspectives of outside stakeholders, the White House will carefully monitor agency implementation of the plans. As a result, agencies will improve their efforts to disclose information to the public and to make such disclosure useful, identify new opportunities for public participation in agency decision-making, and solicit collaboration with those outside government.  (This is a particularly encouraging sign for transparency advocates, The National Security Archive FOIA audit suggests that slow FOIA response times and long FOIA backlogs are primarily results of individual agencies ignoring the President’s mandate.)

These would certainly be welcome improvements for FOIA requesters and government employees assigned to handle FOIA processing alike, and we hope to see them come to fruition in the near future. Some initial suggestions that would aid in this process are:

  1. Rather than solely monitoring their progress, the White House could require that agencies must meet stricter efforts to improve their FOIA processing and responses to the Department of Justice.
  2. Compel agencies to proactively disclose documents rather than waiting for FOIA requests.
  3. Enforce consequences when agencies ignore the Administration’s instructions and orders on transparency, including the Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.

Hopefully, by the March, 2012 meeting of the Open Government Partnership in Brazil, these steps will have been enacted and efforts both in the US and abroad to improve issues of government transparency and accountability will garner press coverage, rather than the President’s photographic gaffes.

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