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U.S., Brazil To Lead International Open Government Partnership

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, July 12 2011

Ask the State Department and it is a return to a challenge President Barack Obama issued at the last U.N. General Assembly, encouraging other countries to embrace open government. Ask some observers, and it is a return to the American practice of democracy building, just under a different name.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at an event in Washington, D.C. in March. Photo: Medill DC / Flickr

Either way, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota this morning announced international partnership to promote transparency, citizen participation, and accountability in participating countries. The event was streamed live on State.gov.

In her remarks, Clinton promised the State Department would place heightened importance on the fight against corruption worldwide, and that the administration would work to boost political support for anti-corruption and tax reform efforts, among others.

"It might have been possible in the past, by the past I mean 20 years ago, not so long ago, for governments to just refuse to be transparent because there were monopolies on sources of information and channels to people," the secretary of state said this morning. "But that is no longer the case. And we have also seen the correlation between openness in government and success in the economic sphere."

Called the Open Government Partnership, the international effort intends to encourage governments to focus on transparency, citizen participation, accountability, and technology and innovation in country "action plans" to be developed 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 pursues its action plan over the course of the year, culminating in a self-assessment and another report compiled by "well-respected local governance experts," according to a roadmap published on the partnership's website.

"Once a grassroots movement that emerged out of meetings between activists and geeks," Open Society Foundation consultant David Sasaki writes in a blog post, "open government is now being adopted by some of the world’s biggest NGOs and transformed into a tool of diplomacy."

(Update: Sasaki wrote in asking to clarify that he was not speaking for OSF in his blog post. Thus, so stipulated.)

During a day-long event today at the State Department, representatives from participating countries will put heads together in a series of conference sessions to talk about technology and policy to promote transparency, fight corruption, and increase civic participation, among others. The day features a showcase of notable open-government tech projects with presenters like Development Seed's Eric Gundersen, Sean MacDonald from the mass-text-messaging system Frontline SMS, and Twaweza, a ten-year project to increase the individual agency of people in East Africa.

The State Department is quick to highlight examples of technology and transparency improving conditions across the globe. In an interview posted on State's website, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero highlights one in particular: In Andhra Pradesh in India, government officials have asked "thousands and thousands" of citizens to participate in tracking the disbursement of a relief program, to reduce fraud and misallocation of funds. By crowdsourcing this accountability project, the government's handling of public money has become a case study in transparency.

"The Indian state minister for rural development in Andhra Pradesh estimates that over the last five years, they’ve saved over or retrieved $20 million in corruption and 4,600 government employees have been fined or face some kind of disciplinary action," Otero said.

But open government initiatives have historically been victims of shifting priorities and declining expectations, and India is also an example of the way goals and expectations are already moving within this partnership. It was at one point expected to be a part of the partnership's steering committee, having been the U.S.'s partner on another open government initiative announced in 2010. Now, it's not.

There are other reminders here that people who have attempted to open governments over the past few years have often met with roadblocks. The current thinking is that two of the big outcomes from the partnership — a signed open government declaration and action plan by each participating country — will be expected by September, when the U.N. General Assembly convenes a new session.

It would be theatrically appropriate timing. When Obama spoke at the U.N. assembly last year, he challenged governments to "bring specific commitments to promote transparency" in 2011.

But a senior person at one of the civil society organizations involved tells me that the timing of open government declarations, and other things, were the subject of ongoing planning sessions Monday and could still be in flux.

Politics may not make way for State's ideal timeline. While Brazil has made recent strides in transparency, it does not have a freedom of information law; protections for freedom of information are one of the criteria for participation in this partnership. A researcher of transparency in Latin America, Greg Michener, tells me that political machinations around a bill to create a Brazilian freedom of information law have already delayed its passage, and could kill it or hold it past September.

And the United States isn't exactly riding high itself just now when it comes to transparency. The federal government's open government initiatives are in a time of backsliding or a time of transition, depending on who you ask. A major changing of the guard is under way among its tech-savvy senior staff and funding for e-government initiatives has suffered a massive hit. The Obama administration's record on responses to Freedom of Information Act requests is also mixed, and Sasaki says that the State Department's is, too. At the same time, Congress is considering legislation that would significantly change how the federal government reports its spending — that could do so in a way that brings the process into the 21st century — and a White House executive order indicates the administration has many of the same ideas in mind.

But not everyone believes that transparency is all that's at stake here. Some see technology and the gospel of open and transparent government as new packaging for building up democratic institutions around the globe, an American intervention in foreign affairs that is now associated with long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as much as it is with anything else.

"The Obama open government partnership, as far as I'm concerned, is a backhanded way of going about democracy promotion," Michener, who holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Texas at Austin and is writing a book on transparency in Latin America, told me last night.

Sasaki, of Open Society Foundation, agrees, calling it "a term tainted by eight years of George W. Bush.

"Activists and international media soon associated 'democracy promotion' with dropping bombs, shuttling suspects to covert CIA prisons, and selectively fostering regime change when it benefits US economic interests," he wrote.

But neither observer is quick to dismiss the potential of this initiative. After all, State has promised to push, with international partners, for more transparent governments worldwide — and let Brazil, a developing nation, drive the transparency bus during its first year on tour.

Today's meeting "should give transparency activists a better idea as to whether the OGP offers a mechanism to put greater international pressure on federal governments — including the United States and Brazil — to become more transparent," Sasaki writes, "or if this is just one more venue for politicians to be politicians."

The initiative's website launched last night, and should be updated with more information through the course of its first year.

* PdF co-founder Andrew Rasiej will participate in this event in his capacity as a senior technology adviser to the Sunlight Foundation.

This post has been updated.