Samantha Power on transparency, national security and open government

How open government can have a global impact.

In November 2010, it’s clear that legitimate concerns about national security must be balanced with the spirit of open government expressed by the Obama administration. The issues created between Wikileaks and open government policies are substantial. Open data may be used for accountability, citizen utility and economic opportunity. But as federal CIO Vivek Kundra expressed to Harvard Business School students studying, the transparency facet in the Obama administration’s open government initiative has multiple layers of complexity.

“We release data on toxicity, but not on national security and privacy,” said Kundra. “It would be a mistake, for instance, to release zip-code-level data about health care.”

Peter Orzag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, was clear about these concerns in the Open Government Directive:

… nothing in this Directive shall be construed to suggest that the presumption of openness precludes the legitimate protection of information whose release would threaten national security, invade personal privacy, breach confidentiality, or damage other genuinely compelling interests.

Given the unrelenting media spotlight that the 21st century media ecosystem puts upon on the White House’s every move, it’s no surprise that controversy erupted when Vice President Biden’s meeting on transparency with the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board was closed to the media, and by extension the public.

On Tuesday, the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC) had its own brush with transparency and open government. The keynote talk and discussion with Samantha Power, special assistant to the President for multilateral affairs and human rights, and member of the National Security Council, was designated as off-the-record by conference organizers. No livestream, no tweets, no liveblogging. On the day that the news broke that no tweeting or Facebook updates would be allowed for President Clinton’s keynote at a event, it might have been the latest episode of open government irony. (Clinton’s media team has since changed its tune.)

“Making a public conversation at the International Open Government Data Conference off the record is antithetical to what the President’s mandate is all about,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, whose panel on transparency followed Power’s remarks.

The situation resulted, however, not from any policy decision but simply from the press office running behind during a long trip abroad, said White House National Security Council spokesman Bob Jensen. “There was a simple procedural issue, not a policy issue. This stuff happens all the time.” Jensen said the request for press clearance couldn’t be processed in time for the conference.

Given that Power’s talk wasn’t reported or recorded, Power agreed to an on-the-record interview with me to discuss the relationship of open government, technology, human rights and transparency.

Looking back, Power said that none of the comments she made to the open government data conference should be considered sensitive. Given that she talked primarily about the relationship of transparency to fighting fraud and corruption, and holding governments accountable, that’s not surprising.

Power discussed her experience using, including finding a data set about child soldiers. She highlighted how technology has changed the ways that citizens around the world can share information about government performance, access economic information, or share key health indicators, including several of the initiatives that she saw when she traveled with President Obama to India. Power subsequently blogged at about the trip and a new US-India partnership on open government.

President Barack Obama confers with Samantha Power, left, and Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, before they attended a wreath laying ceremony at the U.N. headquarters in New York, N.Y.
In this official White House photo by Pete Souza, President Barack Obama confers with Samantha Power, left, and Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, before they attended a wreath laying ceremony at the U.N. headquarters in New York, N.Y.

What follows is our interview, edited for both clarity and length.

How do you balance national security concerns with open government?

Samantha Power: There are two factors that are always brought to bear in discussions in open government, as President Obama has made clear from the day he issued his memorandum.

One is privacy, one is security. There are also, of course, reasons to protect the deliberative process. He addressed some of this in his speech at the National Archives.There’s an awful lot that one can do while still adhering to and advancing those core principles. In the first couple of years, we’ve seen how much room there is to move, with respect to publishing new data sets and finding new ways for them to be used, and with respect to transparency data on, in the policy process.

You talked about a “trust deficit” in government, both here and abroad, during your talk at the open government data conference. Can that be changed by open government initiatives?

SP: I think transparency can get at a number of different issues at once. What we’ve seen with the publishing of the names of people who come into and out of the White House — given the people who know that that’s in place — we see a greater sense of who might be having their voices heard on policy. NGOs and journalists are using those records to assess how we’re doing, with respect to who is visiting the most.

Data, transparency, and access to information are also being used in ways that enhance citizen welfare. If you put toy recall data up online, or look at OSHA data — these are ways of providing to citizens information that government has long collected. Government is an incredible information collecting machine. It’s going to take time to create routines, institutionalize these practices, and make the government conversation more collaborative.

I see a change happening in rules. The public comments on regulations are pored over by officials in the domestic space; as a result, rules are changed and much improved. While a great deal has been done, it’s going to take time for the culture of transparency and dialog to move even further than it has up to this point. We’re not going to change and make that conversation collaborative over night. Some of the trust deficit involves specific policies that people are determined to see delivered on.

As a human rights and democracy adviser in the foreign policy area, I can say that one of the reasons that this is so attractive in countries we’re having discussions in is that the reasons for a lack of trust lie in a profound lack of transparency. To the degree that there are people of good will who are willing to sit down and have discussions about open government and transparency, those can have good effect. Consider the Indian examples from the expo. We think there’s a lot of mileage for progress in the governance space and we’re very excited to think about the specific commitments that all of us will make in presenting subsequent versions of open government.

Which tools are you excited about, specifically?

SP: Each government, and, hopefully, civil society, will come together. Brazil, I think, has been a real leader in participatory budget processes. Indonesia has done a lot to root out police corruption. Citizens can file — and governments can respond — to complaints lodged online. Indians have a strong right to information law. Nigeria apparently has a right to information law that’s been sitting in parliament for more than a decade.

Part of what’s exciting is that a lot of this innovation is occurring in developing countries, which can share their lessons with other countries that are not as far along on the development spectrum. In some cases, that may be more promising than us coming in and saying “look at” or “here’s our data dashboards” and do this.

One thing I do want to stress: while President Obama has issued this appeal in his UN speech, taking the message forward in India, success will be when we’re sitting down with a full complement of countries. In the G20, we’ve adopted an anti-corruption agenda. Now it’s part of the G20, with no one country owning it. As we embark on a global open government initiative, we want to do so partnering with a very diverse group of countries by our side.

How can open government, transparency or technology address human rights issues?

SP: No one reifies technology for its own sake. What was really exciting in India was that the President got to touch and feel technology being used for to promote democratic progress and accountability. Technology was being used by citizens that had been disempowered, disenfranchised. Suddenly, with connection they could be be empowered, and their voices included in discussions. Technology is neither necessary for open government nor sufficient. And of course, on occasion, technology can also be harnessed in ways that can be antithetical to basic human rights.

In India, the second largest applause point line in President Obama’s speech before the Indian parliament was for the President’s comments about e-panchayat, and the landmark “Right to Information” law. What’s distinct and fresh and inspirational to other countries is very important. In Indonesia, we celebrated what Indonesian citizens are doing to hold government accountable and build democracy in the region.

The convening power of the President of the United States can be used to partner with others to create a process through which they can make commitments to harnessing technology, fighting corruption, and collaborating more with their citizens to improve service delivery and increase democratic accountability. I think that this open government initiative is the kind of thing that, as it gets more traction, will get more public support.


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