I’ve been reluctant to engage too publicly on the process surrounding the development of the second US National Action Plan under the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The conflict of interest is straightforward: at Global Integrity we work to support the implementation of OGP by working hand-in-glove with the OGP Support Unit, we’ve provided technology support to the OGP Independent Reporting Mechanism, and we have personal relationships with many of the Steering Committee members. We’re not exactly unbiased observers.
But we do care deeply and work on issues of transparency and accountability in the United States, and several of us are US taxpayers. We’re writing this from the vantage point of a civil society organization concerned about these issues in the US.
Despite the conflicts, I feel the need to start a conversation around what I view as both a huge risk and a huge opportunity that could be addressed through the next version of the US National Action Plan — coming to terms with domestic surveillance and internet freedom. Put another way: a new US National Action Plan that lacks commitments around greater transparency and accountability of domestic surveillance programs is a disappointment, in my view.
For all of its imperfections, OGP’s arguably greatest strength is its ability to respond to current events and crises through the constant refinement and improvement of National Action Plans. This is the genius behind the process: since there’s no treaty to re-negotiate when new open government issues take center stage, National Action Plans can respond organically to the most pressing issues of the day in a domestic context. Allowing governments and their civil society partners to determine, together and on a recurring basis, which open government reforms matter most allows the OGP community to identify and embrace cutting-edge (and potentially controversial) open government initiatives without being hamstrung by a static, staid checklist.
In the US context, what matters most right now is for the administration to square the circle of domestic communications surveillance in an era of (ostensibly) open government. The potential US reforms and commitments around Freedom of Information, declassification, and inspectors general seem diluted in a context where the average American perceives (largely correctly) that government intelligence agencies can potentially monitor and read every message sent through the internet or telephony. Overhauling the regulatory review process strikes me as rather small when the FBI wiretaps the Associated Press. When government whistleblowers are pursued and prosecuted more ruthlessly than at any other time in modern history, I get far less excited about open data directives or White House Innovation Fellowships.
You can’t have true open government under an increasingly draconian national security state, plain and simple. Something has to give.
I don’t diminish the challenge that open government champions inside of the administration face. I am confident that National Security Agency (NSA) officials would be none too pleased to be asked to engage in an OGP National Action Plan drafting process. But that’s the real problem, isn’t it? The two sides of the house simply aren’t talking to each other. The national security apparatus would see no mandate or reason to engage in something like OGP, while the open government true believers lack the clout or ability to drag the spy agencies into the conversation. The few at the top that might have the ability to bring the two sides together are either too busy or don’t care. What we’re left with is a sort of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” set of results that miss the forest from the trees.
OGP National Action Plans offer a messy, imperfect, but real way out of the morass by allowing governments and civil society to prioritize what matters most at a given moment in time to their open government ambitions. What matters most in the United States right now is reforming and rebuilding trust in domestic internet freedom, electronic surveillance, and privacy.