The nomination of Open Government Partnership architect Samantha Power for US Ambassador to the United Nations represents a tremendous opportunity to promote government transparency and accountability around the world, especially in those countries not yet part of the nascent initiative. (Disclaimer: Jeremy Weinstein, who sits on our board, also worked closely with Power in launching OGP).
An experienced journalist and open government advocate, Power’s influence could also advance much needed and much delayed transparency reforms at the United Nations, an organization often accused of using its gargantuan size and scope as an excuse for a lack of accountability.
If confirmed by Congress, Power will face the difficult task of balancing US calls for more openness around the world with the Obama administration’s schizophrenic stance on domestic transparency and civil liberties.
In just the past few months we’ve learned about how the Department of Justice wiretapped Associated Press journalists, the use of secret email accounts by members of the cabinet, and the National Security Agency’s massive electronic dragnet of Verizon business customers (endorsed by a top secret court). The controversial NSA wiretapping was recently reauthorized two weeks before President Obama issued a widely lauded open government data policy. This make your head swirl. The reality is that the U.S. government will no longer be able to claim the moral high ground when lecturing other governments about the need for transparency.
In moments like these, when one of the fiercest backers of transparency is under fire for its own non-transparent behavior, the open government movement should take the opportunity to look inward and consider the need for a more nuanced strategy – emphasizing not just what information governments should provide to the public but the limits of what information the government can legally and ethically extract from its own citizens. This tension between transparency, accountability, and privacy is something we wrote about only yesterday.
Hopefully, advocates like Power can intelligently push the open government agenda on the global stage while acknowledging these tensions. In the meantime, the open government community may want to begin looking at ways in which some of the innovative ideas they developed about transparency and accountability can be used to protect both themselves and the public from intrusive government intervention.