U.S. Efforts to Write OGP Action Plan Criticized

16 August 2011

Consultations on a “National Action Plan” in conjunction with the multinational Open Government Partnership (OGP) have begun in the United States, but are being slighted for falling below the OGP’s consultation standards.

The OGP is a U.S.-initiated multilateral effort to promote transparency internationally. Countries that join (eight so far) commit to prepare “concrete” national action plans, to be announced in mid-September.

In the United States, government officials started  the process by inviting stakeholder groups to three meetings. Although closed, FreedomInfo.org has collected published notes by attendees for all three meetings.

Via a blog post Aug. 8, the Obama administration  solicited public comments on three topics – regulatory processes, government websites and open data.

The administration said it would prepare a summary of the comments. However, 17 groups responded with a letter Aug. 16 regretting that the public responses will not be posted and suggesting more open consultative procedures.

More blog post solicitations of public opinion are promised, but activists are wondering what the administration’s topics will be.

For another thing, no overall consultation plan has been issued, as called for in the “roadmap” for aspiring OGP members, critics note. “It’s really been offhand,” commented one.

The most complete description of the administration’s plans came in the Aug. 8 blog post:

We have initiated consultations about the Open Government Plan, beginning with a number of meetings with key external stakeholders, and our consultation is now moving to a new phase in which we seek ideas through this platform, in response to specific questions that we raise through a series of blog posts.  We will have a final meeting with stakeholders as we finalize our plan.

In an Aug. 16 response to FreedomInfo.org questions, an OMB spokesperson elaborated:

We expect to hold one more meeting with stakeholders as we develop our plan.  This meeting will be organized by open government groups, who will be encouraged to invite those who are interested to provide their expertise and input.  Administration staff will attend to participate in the discussion.  In this way, we hope to receive ideas from a wide variety of people who would like to meet regarding the OGP plan.

It remains unknown whether a draft action plan will be issued for comment.

OGP Consultation Standards

The stakeholder groups have questioned whether the United States in living up to the procedural standards for consultations laid out in a key OGP document: a roadmap for governments wishing to join.

Among other things, the roadmap envisions advance disclosures about the consultation procedures themselves, casting a wide net, publishing public comments and identifying a forum to enable regular multi-stakeholder consultation.

The roadmap states:

OGP participants commit to developing their country action plans through a multi-stakeholder process, with the active engagement of citizens and civil society. Taking account of relevant national laws and policies, OGP participants agree to develop their country commitments according to the following principles:

  1. Countries will make the details of their public consultation process and timeline available (online at minimum) prior to the consultation
  2. Countries will consult widely with the national community, including civil society and the private sector; seek out a diverse range of views and; make a summary of the public consultation and all individual written comment submissions available online
  3. Countries will undertake OGP awareness raising activities to enhance public participation in the consultation
  4. Countries will consult the population with sufficient forewarning and through a variety of mechanisms—including online and through in-person meetings—to ensure the accessibility of opportunities for citizens to engage
  5. Countries will identify a forum to enable regular multi-stakeholder consultation on OGP implementation—this can be an existing entity or a new one

Countries will report on their consultation efforts as part of the self-assessment, and the independent reporting mechanism will also examine the application of these principles in practice.

Consultation Plans Seen Lacking

A July 27 statement by OMB Watch noted that a July 12 White House blog post stated that “we look forward to your input and ideas as we develop our action plan going forward,” and at the administration has begun holding meetings with “select organizations.” OMB Watch is a Washington-based nongovernment organization which focuses on government transparency among other topics.

However, the OMB Watch post said, the administration “has not yet announced its plans for public consultation.”

A participant in one of the meetings sponsored by the administration, Nicholas Cioffi of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, posted descriptive notes, largely favorable about the meeting, and commented: “The public engagement for developing the commitments will consist of continued in-person meetings with stakeholders.  There is much room for improvement there, but I’m not sure that much else could be designed and well-executed in one month, leaving the other time for synthesis and inclusion in the final plan.”

Although the OGP roadmap does not call for release of “proposed” national action plans, such a disclosure is a normal feature of the U.S. regulatory process.

According to notes from the meetings, White House officials have commented on the short time frame for writing the national action plan, suggesting that it will need to be developed in stages.

Countries joining the OGP besides the original eight members of the OGP – Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States – will have until next Spring to prepare their action plans when the OGP is slated to meeting in Brazil.

(See previous FreedomInfo.org reports on the OGP by clicking on “open government partnership” under “latest tags.”)

Blog Post Seeks Comments on Three Topics

The administration on Aug. 8 asked for public views on three topics, providing some insight into their interests.

Comments were sought on:

  • How can regulations.gov, one of the primary mechanisms for government transparency and public participation, be made more useful to the public rulemaking process?
  • OMB is beginning the process of reviewing and potentially updating its Federal Web Policy.  What policy updates should be included in this revision to make Federal websites more user-friendly and pertinent to the needs of the public?
  • How can we build on the success of Data.Gov and encourage the use of democratized data to build new consumer-oriented products and services?

Comments are to be sent to opengov@ostp.gov.  “We will post a summary of your submissions online in the future.  Your ideas will be carefully considered as we produce our National Plan and continue to engage with you over the next month in future posts on this blog.”

The post was signed by Aneesh Chopra, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and Cass Sunstein is the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Sunstein has chaired the meetings with stakeholder groups.

Procedures Slighted

A letter sent by OpenTheGovernment.org and 16 other organizations Aug. 16 advised Chopra and Sunstein that using “an open blog” would be a better procedure, allowing all comments to be seen.

This would create for more of a dialogue, according to one letter-signer, who observed to FreedomInfo.org that the administration’s plan only to publish a summary makes the process “like a suggestion box.”

The group’s letter suggested copying a model used by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) so as to make the development of the action plan “genuinely public.”

The letter says in part:

The key point is that the consultations were done in public and online, and the PIDB  did not just take the comments privately and summarize them online.

Your process is in its early stages, as you indicate there will be a series of blog posts, so it should be possible to make this new phase truly public. Not only will this be in keeping with the spirit of the Open Government Partnership and affirm the US Government’s leadership in openness, it will also improve the quality of the ideas as individuals build on one another’s ideas.

We also urge you to view the consultation not as an event, but an ongoing process that should take place at least quarterly over the next year, and to identify or establish an open forum to enable regular consultation (as indicated in the Roadmap).

Stakeholder Meetings Held

Meetings with administration officials have been listening sessions, with approximately 24  participants  at three meetings making many suggestions to administration officials about what should be included in the action plan.

Written submissions were invited, but have not been released.

Notes on the July 29 meeting were posted by Alex Howard of Gof.Fresh.

Notes on the July 25 meeting were posted by Amy Bennett of OpenTheGovernment.org.

Notes from the July 22 session, noted above, were from Cioffi.

Names of Attendees

The administration has not posted the names of those with whom it has met.

However, the list includes:

The National Security Archive, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Revenue Watch Institute, Transparency and Accountability Initiative, College of Information Studies at University of Maryland, Project on Government Oversight, American Association of Law Libraries, OpenTheGovernment.org, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Sunlight Foundation, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, AmericaSpeaks, Sunshine in Government, Center for Democracy and Technology, Association of Research Libraries, TechAmerica, Center for Technology in Government at SUNY Albany, Government 2.0, O’Reilly Media, Code for America, OMB Watch, Bauman Foundation, Publish What You Fund, and Transparency International USA.

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