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Recommendations for Co-creating a New National Action Plan for Open Government in the US

 Government officials and civil society leaders can get things done together...when organized well.

Government officials and civil society leaders can get things done together...when organized well.

After many months of delays and silence, the Trump administration this week announced plans to bring back a process for developing the country’s fourth Open Government Partnership National Action Plan (NAP). The Partnership is a voluntary “race to the top” club of more than 75 governments and thousands of civil society organizations that work together to develop and implement reforms around government transparency, participation, and accountability through biennial action plans. 

The NAP was due to have been completed last year; after a failed attempt to rush a process through in the fall, the plan was shelved “until early-2018.” It now appears there’s renewed momentum to restart the co-creation process with domestic civil society.

Unless this administration takes more time, engages the public, gets outside of DC, and diversifies participation, however, the process is likely to fall short of both OGP's standards and the pressing needs to address core transparency, accountability and ethics issues in the United States.

I’ve been publicly explicit about my view that there’s little upside in pursuing a NAP under current circumstances here in the US. The Trump administration has been and remains openly hostile to democratic norms that are central to the open government community both in the US and abroad, crossing the Rubicon early and often, and poisoning the well. 

To name just a few of the many violations:

I stand by those views today, and I know most in US civil society feel similarly, given recent reports on open government in the country. 

From an OGP process perspective, however, there’s technically nothing stopping the administration from attempting to restart the NAP process. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. 

Following is my unsolicited advice to those involved in running the process focused on ways to make this a more productive exercise, rather than one that ends in cynicism and disappointment.

I’ll cluster these recommendations into two buckets: the “how” (e.g. how to strengthen the forthcoming co-creation process) and the “what” (which reforms could and should end up being committed to in the forthcoming NAP). 

I should note that these recommendations are my own, speaking individually as a civil society co-chair of OGP. They do not reflect any agreed OGP steering committee or Support Unit position, just to be clear. Feel free to throw shade my way – but not at OGP.

Improving how the co-creation process works 

An uncomfortable truth about the US co-creation process historically is that it was never that great, even during the Obama administration (which was a strong backer of OGP and helped to create the Partnership). 

Previous NAP co-creation processes centered on a few set piece events at the White House, online submissions of ideas from civil society, months would then pass, and the administration would eventually release a plan. This process was farfrom what OGP asks of participation countries. Planners this time around would do well to read (and re-read, and then re-read again!) OGP’s new, robust Participation and Co-Creation Toolkit.

This volume has loads of examples for how to move from simply “consulting” with the public/civil society to truer co-creation. As OGP’s independent audit unit, the Independent Reporting Mechanism, has made clear in reviews of previous US Action Plans, the US has rarely moved beyond “consulting” and lags behind many other countries where more meaningful collaboration and co-creation are the norm. 

We can and need to do better this time around. OGP’s detailed Co-Creation Standards lay out specific steps that governments need to take to ensure that they meet the minimum requirements. Beginning in 2018, meeting those minimum standards (including the creation of a multistakeholder forum, discussed below) is required for governments to remain in good standing with the Partnership. 

What would more meaningful co-creation look like in 2018? Here are some suggestions:

Take the time to get this right. We should be budgeting at least 4-6 months to do this properly. Two 3-hour meetings (in a government office building) and a GitHub repository of suggestions do not add up to co-creation. In line with current OGP guidance to countries, a more ambitious and effective approach would be to establish a permanent multistakeholder forum (MSF) explicitly focused on generating the OGP NAP. The MSF should meet monthly while simultaneously leveraging virtual discussions and debates. This MSF should be separate from the existing US Interagency Open Government Working Group, in my opinion. While that group would naturally provide many members to the MSF, it is too Washington-centric and constrained in its available time. Which leads me to my next suggestion…

Get outside of DC to engage in co-creation. This has been a perennial challenge with US NAP processes to-date; they have been incredibly DC-centric and have failed to reach beyond the Beltway in bringing in diverse opinions and perspectives (a dial-in number is necessary but still insufficient!). Look for inspiration in what the Canadian federal government is currently doing with their NAP co-creation process; this ambitious process has involved dozens of online and offline events designed to solicit public input from across that vast country. It puts anything we’ve ever done here in the US to shame! In short: fewer meetings at federal buildings in Washington and more meetings in libraries and civic centers in places like Detroit, Louisville, Des Moines, and Tulsa, please.

Diversify who participates in these conversations and debates. Historically, on the civil society side of things, US NAP co-creation processes have been dominated by a small handful of DC-based good government and civic tech organizations. I count many of them as wonderful friends and colleagues, but the echo chamber effect is real and dangerous. More marginalized communities in the US – whether communities of color, women’s rights organizations, or rural constituencies – have been essentially shut out of these discussions and debates. That needs to change with this fourth NAP, and it again implies getting out of DC, both literally and figuratively, and meeting different people and communities where they are. We also need more political diversification as part of the NAP co-creation process; DC-based domestic civil society groups usually lean left (sorry, folks, but it’s true). Why don’t we see more experts from the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, or R Street Institute attending US NAP development meetings? Finally, OGP is no longer a gender- or inclusion-blind initiative, and our domestic NAP processes need to reflect that. We need leadership from both government and civil society to reflect the full diversity of the United States from a gender, racial, religious, and socio-economic perspective. 

Improving the “What”

It’s important to state a few simple truths about the current climate in the US. US civil society organizations working on transparency, accountability, and participation do not trust this administration – and for good reason given the administration’s hostile posture, rhetoric, and actions since taking office vis a vis core open government values. Is meaningful co-creation even possible in this climate?

I’m not sure it is, but it certainly can’t happen without the administration being prepared to embrace at least someof civil society’s key policy asks within the context of the new NAP. While the administration continues to anchor NAP discussions on e-government and technology themes, civil society is clamoring for commitments around beneficial ownership (to provide greater transparency into who controls shell companies), declassification of government records, improved freedom of information and whistleblower protections, and ethics reform. Basically, the harder stuff. Improving management and modernizing IT services are welcome initiatives but are insufficient for an ambitious open government reform plan.

In every OGP country, the final NAP is almost always a compromise that neither government nor civil society finds 100% satisfying. But NAPs need to reflect at least someof the key equities sought by both sides; otherwise, they run the risk of being perceived as irrelevant before they’re even finalized and published. An eventual fourth US NAP that consists solely of shiny, technology-centric commitments (cough, blockchain) will only further antagonize US civil society and likely lead to a boycott of sorts, where civil society publicly disowns the resultant NAP entirely. This is not a good place for either the administration or civil society to be; in that scenario, no NAP at all is a superior (however dispiriting) option.

What's next

I’ve signed up to participate in the initial June 14thco-creation workshop and am looking forward to it…I think. What I don’t want to happen: government interlocutors briefing non-government counterparts for the majority of the time on potential commitment areas with little to no meaningful space or time for debate and discussion. Let’s instead use the time to jump straight into a wide-ranging discussion with respect to what could potentially make its way into the NAP and not constrain ourselves to preexisting frameworks (e.g. the President’s Management Agenda, while a helpful input, cannot represent the universe of the possible). We should all come with an open mind and maximum flexibility, but we all also need to be mindful of the current strains on government-civil society relations in the US and what that implies for designing and executing a successful co-creation process during the coming several months. Intellectual honesty on both sides is imperative.

As the adage goes, “Only Nixon could go to China.” Perhaps it’s only a Trump administration that can make for a more meaningful NAP co-creation process in the United States. I have my doubts, but I’m willing to park them at the door provided there’s genuine leadership and creativity on the other side of the table. 

I’ll see you in two weeks.