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The Semi-Open Development of an Open Government Plan

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, August 23 2011

When President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly last year, he called on world governments — including his own — to return this September with promises to be more transparent, fight corruption and get more people involved in civic life.

Nearly a year later, his administration is co-chairing an international coalition of governments that have promised to follow through on those promises — but the initiative, announced in July, has just a few weeks left to deliver, and some critics aren't impressed with the way the administration is handling public consultation in the face of this short timeline.

The Open Government Partnership was announced in July shortly before this high-level meeting of participating governments and non-governmental organizations.

Called the Open Government Partnership, the international effort intends to encourage governments to increase transparency, citizen participation, accountability, and technology and innovation through "action plans" each country should develop through the September start of a new United Nations General Assembly. The plan is to connect participating countries with each other and with experts in civil society organizations who will share their expertise as each country then implements its action plan over the course of the year. The first year of work should culminate in a self-assessment and another report compiled by "well-respected local governance experts," according to a roadmap published on the partnership's website.

To inform the creation of the U.S. action plan, White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and top regulatory official Cass Sunstein asked in a blog post yesterday for suggestions as to how the U.S could electronically archive records, publish compliance and enforcement data online, and promote corporate accountability. This post follows an Aug. 8 post seeking suggestions on data.gov, updating the federal web policy, and improving regulations.gov, a federal website to track and comment on proposed federal rulemaking.

The questions are broad, but answers are specific. In response to the Aug. 8 solicitation, open government advocate Clay Johnson suggested requests for comment would get better response if they asked questions in plain English — a simple proposition. But he also proposed that officials track Freedom of Information Act requests to identify the most interesting datasets in the federal arsenal, then seek to make them available on Data.gov. Phase One's Dan Morgan wrote that Data.gov should be made more appealing to a general audience.

The thing is, people only know what Johnson and Morgan wrote because they took the time to blog about it. Both of the White House calls for suggestions ask that comments be emailed in, which has some open government observers scratching their heads.

"This comes rather as a surprise," participatory government researcher Tiago Peixoto wrote to kick off an extended public thread on Google +. "Even though Sunstein might have some reserves towards deliberative models he is a major scholar in the field of decision-making and — to put it in fashionable terms — solutions to tap the crowd’s expertise.

"In this case," he wrote later in the post, "why would they solicit online feedback via e-mail?"

There have been similar criticisms from the freedom of information watchdogs at freedominfo.org and from Cardozo School of Law professor and former White House adviser Susan Crawford, who noted that it's been hard to follow the U.S. plan's genesis.

And so a process that's supposed to help the U.S. become more open and participatory is a pretty one-way affair. Commenters from the public won't be able to see what their peers are saying until summaries of the comments are posted online, and a series of in-person consultations on the plan prior to Aug. 8 were invitation-only. Participants at each of three in-person meetings with White House officials have been posting notes, but the attendees seem to have been selected through an informal, closed process.

Some people in the circle of organizations that OMB has invited to comment, like OpentheGovernment.org's Patrice McDermott, note that the Office of Management and Budget wasn't able to start domestic consultations until after the international groundwork was settled in July — so it isn't as if Sunstein, Chopra and company had months to prepare a consultation process.

"I would say they are working to develop a more robust consultation process," McDermott wrote to me today in an email. "For the time being, anyone who has ideas should use the email address; info sent there is being read and reviewed."

Action plans from each country — in the U.S., the Office of Management and Budget seems to be leading that internal effort — should be ready, at least in some form, by the U.N. General Assembly meeting next month. Separate talks to hash out a statement of principles for OGP member countries, where the U.S. State Department has the lead in representing the Obama administration, should be done by then as well.