The Obama Administration recently released its self-assessment of open government initiatives—an evaluation that shows solid progress, though it is perhaps more self-congratulatory than is deserved.
As part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international good governance initiative that aims to “promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance,” the U.S. is required to draw up a National Action Plan each year. The self-assessment reflects the 2012 National Action Plan, the first of its kind, and shows encouraging progress, as the Administration reports that it has met 24 of the 26 commitments made in the action plan within the first year of OGP. However, an independent report released by OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition in which the Project On Government Oversight is a partner, found that 19 of the commitments were fully implemented (and one commitment was not assessed in the independent report). POGO and several other civil society organizations contributed to this report.
The Administration announced the release of its self-assessment with a blog post calling particular attention to its achievements on whistleblower protections, the launch of the online petition platform We the People, its commitment to an international natural resource extraction transparency initiative, and the expansion of Data.gov.
We want to congratulate the Administration for making considerable progress on open government issues in its first National Action Plan and for going beyond a few of the specific commitments. Some of these successes directly follow recommendations made by POGO and our partners upon the launch of OGP in September 2011. These encouraging first steps set the tone for productive collaboration between civil society and the government on openness and accountability.
Provoking accountability is one of the major aims of our work on open government. However, this has not always been a priority for the Obama Administration. For example, the Open Government Directive (OGD)—the precursor to the OGP, issued the President’s first full day in office—specified the goals of “Transparency, Collaboration, and Participation.” While this was a welcome step towards a more open government, we were disappointed (but not surprised) that accountability was not one of these pillars. Getting a government to open up to being held accountable for waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement is not an easy task. However, we have been pleased to see the Administration increasingly focusing on accountability in both the commitments made in the National Action Plan and the self-assessment. For example, the National Action Plan commitment to expand protections for federal whistleblowers is very much about empowering the individuals that will hold the Administration accountable. This is commendable. In addition, in the self-assessment, the Administration promises to further elevate FOIA and Privacy Act personnel accountability, noting “the importance of the work performed by those in the Federal Government who are responsible for realizing the Administration’s vision of an open and transparent government.”
We have been closely following the progress on OGP commitments since they were released, and our civil society groups have worked with the Administration to flesh out these commitments. This relationship has been fairly productive. For example, civil society groups drew the Administration’s attention to the importance of properly implementing Presidential Policy Directive 19, which extends whistleblower protections to those in the national security and intelligence communities. The focus on proper implementation is directly referenced in the Administration’s evaluation. This policy directive was also published online at the urging of these groups.
The self-assessment does address some challenges and next steps, but—disappointingly—fails to tackle a number of the concerns we have raised. For instance, at the same time the Administration was strengthening whistleblower protections, a case the Administration appealed expanded a gaping national security loophole in those same protections, putting some of the most important whistleblowers at risk.
We hope the second National Action Plan, due in the fall, will fill in some of these gaps and build on the successes of the first action plan. There certainly is more work to do to accomplish the goals laid out in the current National Action Plan. Both evaluations considered two of the commitments to be unmet. These are the commitment to encourage communication between government officials and citizen experts through an online portal, ExpertNet, and the commitment to develop best practices and metrics for public participation. The launch of ExpertNet was put on hold due to time and resource constraints; the government is considering other ways of forming communities with citizen experts. And the effort to develop best practices for public participation has been absorbed into a larger effort to create a new digital strategy, delaying its fulfillment—though we are hopeful that this new policy will be worth the wait.
The civil society report was designed to help combat a “check the boxes” mentality on implementation. As such, the civil society organizations not only looked at whether the Administration met the commitment as written, but also at whether or not the Administration incorporated civil society recommendations and how sustainable the results are. This was a major dividing point between our assessment and that of the Administration. The self-assessment highlights several areas that still need work, but considers most commitments as completely met nonetheless. The second section of the civil society report looks broadly at the progress that can be made by making bold moves forward that might take longer than the length of one National Action Plan to complete, such as the commitment to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
The commitments on which the civil society report diverges from the Administration’s self-evaluation are:
- Open Government Plans: These department and agency plans required by the OGD, which are supposed to include initiatives meant to provide actionable goals for openness at an agency level, have been largely lacking. The civil society evaluation found that there has been very little collaboration with outside stakeholders in developing these plans and that the public portal for implementation efforts has not been updated regularly.
- Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI): Though there has been significant movement toward implementation of the EITI and we are pleased with its progress, the U.S. candidacy process is not yet technically complete. However, this is a process we would rather have done well than done quickly. This voluntary framework under which governments and companies publicly disclose revenues from extractive industries is an important transparency initiative we look forward to advancing. The executive director of POGO, Danielle Brian, is a civil society co-chair of the EITI Advisory Committee. We’ve been pleased with the actions taken thus far to make the Advisory Committee as open as possible.
- Transparency of Foreign Assistance: This commitment requires implementation of government-wide reporting requirements for foreign aid distribution. While the civil society evaluation notes concrete steps toward achieving this, it calls the efforts “commendable,” but incomplete. A guidance bulletin released in September by the Office of Management and Budget sets out a framework for agency reporting of foreign assistance data that has yet to be implemented.
We look forward to discussing lessons learned from this first National Action Plan, and our hope is that we will see even bolder steps toward concrete change in the next plan. The OGP provides a platform from which real improvements in government spending transparency, the classification system, disclosure requirements, whistleblower protections, and FOIA implementation can spring. We are eager to assist the Administration in drafting ambitious goals that are also achievable and practical. We will outline our specific recommendations for the next action plan here soon. Stay tuned!