This week, the White House released its Third National Action Plan (NAP) as part of the Open Government Partnership. The plan is intended to create transparency and accountability measures that promote openness, empower citizens, fight corruption, and transform the way the government serves and engages with the public. The result, however, was a real snooze fest.
Previous NAPs were released in 2011 and 2013. The third NAP includes commitments to enable the public to learn more about government operations and activities via improved websites, proactive federal agency disclosures, and an improved Freedom of Information process. The plan calls for streamlining the declassification process and moving forward with implementing a “controlled unclassified information” program, and making the intelligence community more transparent. Other commitments seek to improve public participation, strengthen whistleblower protections for government employees, increase spending transparency, support the release of meaningful beneficial ownership information, expand justice and law enforcement programs and available data, and promote global sustainable development.
Unfortunately, tireless work by civil society groups, including the Project On Government Oversight, was ignored. Worse, the NAP is filled with commitments that have previously been implemented, are in the works, or are just wrong (the commitment involving the extractive industries indicates that U.S. EITI has already begun implementing project-level and beneficial ownership reporting, but that isn’t occurring).
For example, we were told by the Administration that it was interested in receiving open contracting suggested reforms, so civil society groups provided 13 model open contracting commitments. But in the end, the NAP only touched on three contract-related issues: finding new ways to increase spending transparency by re-imagining USAspending.gov and including all account-level expenditures; using new technologies to improve procurement and grant systems; and centralizing integrity and ownership information on contract and grant recipients. Those general commitments are a good start, but we were expecting more in the area of specifics and the number of commitments that would be offered.
POGO’s work focused on four areas:
1) Whistleblowing – Urging the Administration to protect national security and intelligence community whistleblowers; preventing national security loopholes from undermining whistleblower protections and government accountability; increasing accountability for federal spending by adequately protecting contractor and grantee whistleblowers; and taking additional measures to protect our women and men in the military who blow the whistle on sexual assault, waste, fraud, abuse, and other misconduct, and to ensure that whistleblowers within the Department of Veterans Affairs are adequately protected.
2) Ethics – Strengthening lobbying disclosures to expose the revolving door and special interest influence in government decisions; disclosing political spending that is driving elections; making lobbying disclosures more comprehensive and effective; and encouraging ethics data to be more accessible.
3) Open Government Contracting – Improving USAspending.org and contractor responsibility and past performance databases; creating a new unique identifier system to better track companies and their subsidiaries; providing details about company ownership so that anonymous individuals aren’t hiding in the shadows; increasing data on small businesses to ensure that small business goals are actually being met; releasing cost or pricing data; publishing revolving door, political spending, and contractor fraud data; and disclosing requests by contractors to withhold information requested pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.
4) Extractive Industry Openness – Continued implementation of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to ensure that companies publish what they pay and the federal government publishes what it receives for natural resources extraction on public lands; urging the Administration to expand the scope of the initiative to include forestry as an extractive industry; placing a greater focus on state and tribal participation; and calling on companies to report project-level data and beneficial ownership information.
Although a few concepts from our proposed commitments made it into the NAP, the majority didn’t. Despite Obama’s campaign trail promises to end special interests in Washington and promote greater contract spending transparency, his Administration has missed an opportunity to set a precedent for future presidents.
While there is little doubt that the NAP process is a great way for government to hear from citizens, this process seemed more like a nightmare of going through the motions and not being heard.
A scorecard of the NAP was published by OpenTheGovernment.org, who performed the herculean task of organizing civil society groups, working with the Administration on proposals, and publishing the model plan that was sent to the White House. The grades reflect the problems and concerns highlighted above, which shows that the Administration clearly fell asleep on the job.