This is the fourth post in our five part series of Q&As with selected countries and their experiences with the OGP process at the national level is with Patrice McDermott, Executive Director OpenTheGovernment.org, Wayne Moses Burke, Executive Director Open Forum Foundation in the US.
1. Describe the process
The OGP initiative requires the delivery a country action plan developed with public consultation. For the U.S., the OGP originated in the White House from the President himself. In July 2011, the US State Department hosted the first major outreach with dozens of countries at a meeting in Washington, D.C. At this meeting, it became apparent that most of the effort in the US government was going into the diplomatic side, that internal interaction within the government was not well-coordinated, and that there was no systematic way for the government to interact with civil society on the OGP, and that U.S. transparency advocacy organizations were not adequately represented in the efforts that were occurring. OpenTheGovernment.org stepped into the role of coordinator of the openness and transparency community in the U.S., engaging the broader U.S. civil society transparency community, and some international organizations that work on U.S. government transparency issues, to help influence the creation of the U.S. National Action Plan. OTG, as a coalition and its staff, was particularly well-placed to lead for the openness/accountability community, as this community was well-organized and had for a number of years been working together to build consensus on our policy priorities –including a detailed set of transition (from President Bush to President Obama) recommendations (21st Century Right-to-Know), meetings with the transition teams, an “openness floor” for government information, and a list of 7 specific asks to the Obama Administration. Indeed, we were much better organized than the government, as they were largely operating in stove-piped offices with little coordination. Some collaboration was occurring related to work on President Obama’s Open Government Directive and we had been meeting with an interagency working group around the implementation of that directive. But, generally, it took some effort to get the White House offices working smoothly together.
Over the course of July through September 20, 2011, OpenTheGovernment.org established a Google group for groups both inside and outside D.C, coordinated 6 face-to-face meetings with a wide range of groups, set up regular conference calls, and facilitated communications with the Obama Administration. While encouraging the Administration to act on our coalition’s priorities, we also helped make sure that the wider transparency community—including organizations that had not previously engaged in domestic policy but have an interest in U.S. actions—met with the Administration’s domestic policy team that wrote the U.S. National Action Plan.
In our ongoing face-to-face and other meetings with the Administration, we were told they were hamstrung by their internal processes and legal restrictions from sharing the draft Plan with us as it developed, but we were assured that “you are going to be happy.” The outcome of this work was the commitments in the U.S. Government’s Action Plan that address the concerns of a broad array of the stakeholders. The US NAP addresses three broad challenges, and includes 26 commitments to help achieve 17 goals.
Although those commitments were a significant step, OpenTheGovernment.org has learned from experience that if the process is not pushed from the outside, very little happens. While the Administration is committed to these issues, without sustained advocacy from the NGO community, new issues and crises come along that distract attention away from transparency priorities.
We did more than pay attention: within 6 weeks of the release of the Plan, we set a high bar for what would count as successes and presented the Administration with a detailed roadmap of what needed to be done to meet their openness goals. We also established civil society (CSO) teams around each of the government’s commitments and the White House worked with us to set up meetings with each of these teams and the responsible official(s) inside the government. Where the agency teams inside government directly proposed commitments for the Plan and were committed to them internally, these meetings have been highly productive and have led to ongoing relationships between CSOs and government officials.
We also developed metrics to assess both whether the Administration met the letter of the commitment, if it took the recommendations made by civil society, and if the Administration stretched itself beyond the commitment to meet its expressed goals and make the effort more successful. In January OpenTheGovernment.org will release that full assessment.
In advance of that full evaluation, we released a Progress Report on September 20, 2012, the first anniversary of the USG Plan. At that point, 8 of the USG’s commitments were fully met and the rest were in progress toward meeting that goal by the end of 2012.
We are now in the process of developing the next set of recommendations for the US NAP 2.0 with a broader set of CSOs. We will build from the set of robust working group-to-government recommendations for next steps on current projects and new ideas for advancing government openness and accountability.
2. Describe two things that were really good about the consultation, why it worked, and one thing that was not so good about it
The Administration actively utilized the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition and our outreach to engage with civil society. They were open to meeting repeatedly and in various settings and to hearing civil society groups ideas. The Plan itself directly reflected many of the asks from civil society, and the development of the Plan created an action-forcing deadline for policies that were foundering in the bureaucracy.
The government’s outreach to a more general public was very limited and not at all transparent or interactive, in contrast to our Google groups and well-attended open meetings (with those outside DC participating by phone). The USG set up a blog for broader input, but it was really only a drop-box for comments, which the Administration summarized. We pushed back that this was not sufficient, but this was an example of the rushed organization of the USG in approaching the Plan.
3. What would your advice be for a new OGP member country- both for the government and for the civil society actors
The primary piece of advice is that civil society actors need to get themselves organized, figure out what it is that they want from the Plan, and build consensus on those “asks.” Start with outreach, meetings, and events that form common understandings around open government principles with discussions about the types of projects that should be in the plan. And then the civil society actors have to stay organized and push government to a) include those commitments, and b) implement them.
For both government and civil society, building relationships is essential – at both the planning and the implementation stages. The working relationships that form from this process will not only enable a better and more realistic action plan, they will also create broader support for the plan, and enable the implementation to be appropriately shared, and any shortfalls more understood by non-governmental actors.