Historic global Open Government Partnership launches in New York City

Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, talks about what to expect from the OGP.

Open government is about to assume a higher profile in foreign affairs. On July 12, 2011, the State Department hosted an historic gathering in Washington to announce the (OGP) with Brazil and six other nations. Today in New York City, this unprecedented global partnership will launch. Heads of state, representatives of civil society, members of the free press and technologists will convene at the New York offices of Google to hail the “Power of Open” around the world. In the afternoon, President Obama and the leaders of seven other countries will announce their national action plans and commitments to open government. I’ll be liveblogging the event here on the Radar Gov 2.0 channel and tweeting out pictures to Tumblr and other social platforms. Virtual participants will be able to watch the launch at Google’s YouTube channel at 9 AM EST.

Some 43 countries have now indicated their intent to join this international open government partnership, with the vast majority joining the founding eight members, led by Brazil and the United States. The formation of the OGP revisited the bilateral U.S.-Indian partnership on open government that was announced during President Obama’s trip to India last November, although India subsequently withdrew from the OGP in July.

In her remarks on July 12 at the State Department, Secretary of State Clinton explicitly connected open government to economic activity. “We’ve also seen the correlation between openness in government and success in the economic sphere,” said Clinton. “Countries committed to defending transparency and fighting corruption are often more attractive to entrepreneurs. And if you can create small- and medium-size businesses, you have a broader base for economic activity. At a time when global competition for trade and investment is fierce, openness is not just good for governance, it is also good for a sustainable growth in GDP.”

In the week following Clinton’s speech, I spoke with Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs at the United States State Department, about the Open Government Partnership and what it will mean. Our interview follows. You can also listen to an audio recording of our discussion, embedded above.

Can you explain how open government and a greater degrees of transparency or accountability are related to investment, economic output or activity?

“I think what the secretary said really summarizes well one aspect of what’s economic growth and even economic development in a country, which is really how the rest of the world perceive it and how the rest of the world measures risk when you invest in a country,” said Otero. “Clearly, if anyone looks at the components of country risk as you invest, issues that have to do with transparency and accountability are present within the factors that comprise that equation.

Otero explored other aspects of open government that arose in discussions at the forums at the State Department in July. “One was clearly that transparency will insure that resources are used for what they are meant to be used for in their totality, in part because you are seeing the transfer of funds and the use of funds, to make sure that some of that is not being set aside for other things or in some way taken out for corrupt reasons,” she said. “That concept of being able to use a country’s revenues in order to carry out a government’s mandate and plan is again one way which the economic concept becomes important. Even if you’re talking about health, if in fact you’re providing improved health services to your population, you are improving their capacity to be productive citizens and to contribute to the economy. I mean, you can just go across the board.”

“Another thing that came up that was very interesting, and it was actually brought up on Kenya, was the degree to which they themselves were not asking to collect information completely, but now that they are, how it is that they look at some of the items that they import into the country they they themselves could produced or could have. Just looking more carefully both at their balance of trade issues, recording all the information, giving emphasis to using data to make decisions, led, certainly the Kenyan participants, to give a couple of examples of how their imports had decreased in a couple of areas.”

“These are different ways that open government can address directly the question that you are asking. I think we’re going to come up with a lot more applications for open government that relate to reducing costs, said Otero. “As countries do this work more and more, we will see, especially when they are looking at the budget and the way the resources are allocated, that this will also, and the Secretary talked about this, conceivably have an impact on the tax revenue base of a country, because there are many citizens, either for excuse or otherwise, say ‘well, why am I going to pay taxes if it’s going to go into the pockets of some bureaucrat and it’s really not going to bring about changes.’ The minute you have more transparency and people begin to see how their taxes are being used, you then again increase the tax revenue that the country has available.”

I brought up how the new city government in Chicago is thinking about data and the global movement towards open data, which Otero said is part of OGP. For city government under Mayor Emmanuel, open data is viewed as a means for government to understand its own operations, become more productive and deploy its resources more efficiently and effectively. The example of Chicago led Otero to highlight an aspect of the Open Government Partnership that’s she found very interesting. “It is open to developed countries that have cities like Chicago, and developing countries, like a Kenya,” said Otero.

“The point is that some of these tools for transparency can be used even by countries that one might think may not have the resources to be able to do that, or even the know how,” she said. “In fact, it is available across the board and that is one of the characteristics of the Open Government Partnership, both recognizing that and ensuring that the leadership in this partnership from the outset is comprised of countries from the north or from the south. Again, showing examples of how you can do this in the south that are attainable to the countries that want to do that. It’s very interesting that we can talk about Chicago and, say, Kisumu, Kenya in the same breath.”

What concrete outcomes for open government around the world should citizens, advocates, entrepreneurs and technologists be looking for from this partnership?

“The partnership is really the first time that there is a multilateral platform to address these issues,” said Otero. “The partnership could have focused on countries come in and present best practices and exchange ideas and then just go home,” said Otero. “The partnership is really focused on first having countries participate that have already demonstrated interest in this area and have already put in place a number of specific things and the material laid out, if you will, the minimum standards that are being requested. What the partnership really looks for is to provide a mechanism by which the countries can each develop their own national plans on ways to expand what they’re doing on transparency, accountability, and civic engagement, or to start new initiatives for them. That is really what is very different and important about this partnership, is that it is very action- and results-oriented.”

When countries join the Open Government Partnership, they commit themselves to address one of several “grand challenges.” “They can be anything from public service, addressing public integrity issues, for managing public resources,” said Otero. “Using these challenges, they need to be able to create a plan. Now countries can, of course, choose what they will address. The partnership is not saying ‘now all of you have to do the same thing.’ It’s very much based upon the way in which each country is assessing the specific ways it is interested in addressing. The Partnership is challenging countries to identify those areas of most interest to them, and then to be able to develop a plan that will allow them to make changes and have some real results come out of this. The broad vision for this effort is to really mobilize countries to do something very concrete and in the process develop their own capacity for doing it. Of course here, one can note that there will be some resources available to help countries do this work. That’s really at the core of the work.”

One clear difference that we see today from past decades is the reality of an increasingly wired citizenry. “The role of technology in doing all of this is very apparent to anyone that’s been alive in the last decade,” she said. “How countries are using technology, everything from using social media to creating their own websites to a variety of different things is really impressive and very innovative. So, of course, the private sector, if they’ve got any brains in their head, are seeing this as an important business opportunity.”

“Whether you’re creating new apps or working with directly with different governments, keeping your eyes open in this space, you also create different mechanisms, different technologies that can be of use to government. The bottom line is that the real effort here and the real outcome that would make the Open Government Partnership successful is signing up a significant number of countries that participate, and having those countries launch their own national plans and carry them out.”

What were some of the platforms and technologies that have inspired you?

In Estonia they talk about creating a ‘paperless government, Otero observed. “They really are creating ‘e-governance,’ as they call it, throughout, which is really quite amazing,” she said. “In Iceland, it’s very interesting that they’re using social media to be able to have citizens participate in the redrafting of their constitution. They’re using Facebook, and Twitter, and other things to just be able to communicate with the population.

Otero also pointed to the dynamic technology sector in Kenya, which launched an open government data platform this summer. Kenyans have advanced in technology more than any country in Africa, said Otero with the M-PESA system and the way that Kenyans can access information record data using mobile phones. “I think the Kenyan understand the importance of being able to use this data and some of the ideas that they put forth were more related to this area of saving resources and making some of the money available for other work. Otero also referenced open government work in Mexico, England, Honduras, Tanzania and Uganda.

India withdrew from the partnership, reportedly over concerns about a third party “audit” of its progress. Can you offer any more detail?

“It makes all the sense in the world to have independent experts who don’t do an audit, which is a word that you used, but really assess, and look, and monitor the progress that’s being made,” said Otero. “They do this in a way to maintain that accountability, but also to make sure that you’re not rating these countries or grading them or putting them in a category from 1 to 100 or whatever. That process is in place that was decided upon and all the countries believe that it adds vigor and rigor to this effort. I think, as you said, India has provided great value in this area of open government, of transparency, of accountability. They have done very important work, and they are strongly committed to the principles that are espoused by the Open Government Partnership. In fact, in the time that they worked directly, they really contributed a great deal. I think, right now, the government has indicated that they can’t participate, and I think that the reason is precisely the one that you’ve laid out.”

“I think that they will continue to follow the progress of the partnership. Many countries have bilateral relationships with India and continue to address these kinds of issue in a more bilateral way, because they have a great deal to contribute, both to this initiative and the overall work in transparency. I think, certainly, we completely respect their decision right now to watch this closely but not be part of it right now, and to continue doing their work internally. That’s really the way that I understand their position.”

Progress and setbacks toward open government

Over the summer and fall, analysis and information have steadily emerged about what this open government partnership will mean to open government in the United States and around the world. David Sasaki wondered if the OGP was “democracy building 2.0.” Greg Michener echoed his analysis, wondering if the Brazil was fit to lead the OGP. Global Integrity explained its role in the OGP. Emma Smith questioned whether the Philippines is serious about open government.

In the U.S., OMB Watch posited that the OGP could drive U.S. commitments, particularly if, as John Wonderlich suggested at the Sunlight Foundation suggested, a U.S. national plan for open government was matched by subsequent follow through. The White House open government “status update” capped a historic week for open government in Washington, as the administration prepares to launch e-petitions. Quiet successes, however, have been matched with setbacks to open government in Washington over the past three years. The Obama administration now faces an uncertain future for funding for its Office of Management and Budget’s open government initiatives after the U.S. Senate appropriations committee shortchanged the Electronic Government Fund by some $10 million dollars last week. With these proposed funding cuts the U.S. Congress is, as OMB Watch put, it “about to underfund the very tools that will tell them how federal money is being spent.” When President Obama announces the U.S. National Plan for Open Government PDF) (embedded below), the implementation will have to be undertaken in that context.

The future of funding for open government platforms coming from the White House, however, now must be taken in the context of a much broader narrative that includes dozens of other countries and hundreds of millions of other citizens. Aleem Walji, writing at the World Bank, put the effort in the context of a broad move from “eGov to ‘WeGov’. His analysis captures something important: whatever action the United States does or does not take in its own movements towards greater transparent, accountable or participatory government, there is a global movement towards transparency that is now changing the relationship of the governed to their governments. Unprecedented levels of connectivity and mobile devices have created new connections between citizens and information that lie outside of traditional methods of government command and control. The future of open government may well literally be in all of our hands.

This interview was condensed and edited. A full audio recording is embedded above.

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