U.S. Issues 26-Point Plan of Transparency Commitments

20 September 2011

The United States Sept. 20 made 26 specific commitments as part of its national action plan for participation in the Open Government Partnership.

Some part of the plan have announced previously, but a few items are new.

“Probably the biggest announcement,” according to an administration official, is a commitment  to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative — a voluntary international effort in which governments publicly disclose what revenues they’re getting from oil, gas, and mineral companies and from those assets.

In addition, the administration plans to launch a platform called “ExpertNet” that will enable government officials to search for and communicate with citizens who have expertise on a pertinent topic, a U.S. official noted at a pre-release briefing.  Senior administration officials briefed about the U.S. plans on Sept. 19 in New York, but would not permit their names to be used. (See transcript.)

Also fresh is an announcement that the administration President intends to strengthen protection for whistleblowers. “Our preference is to do so with the Congress and to push it over the finish line that way, but in the event the Congress doesn’t act on the whistleblower protections before it, then the Executive Branch will look at what it can do in order to strengthen those protections,” the briefer said.

Alos planned is a website where agencies that administer foreign aid will be required to post detailed and standardized project and budget information so officials can better evaluate those programs’ effectiveness.

The U.S. action plan was announced along with those of the eight other core members of the Open Government Partnership at an announcement event in New York attended by President Obama and other leaders from the 46 participating countries.  (See related report.)

26 Points

Shorn of introductory material, the 26 bullet points of the U.S plan are:

  • Launch the “We the People” Petition Platform. Building on President Obama’s desire to hear directly from the American people, the White House has announced that it will launch “We the People” to give Americans a direct line to voice their concerns to the Administration via online petitions. This is a tool to enable the public to create and sign petitions on a range of issues. If a petition meets a public signature threshold, it will be reviewed by White House policymakers, who will consult relevant Administration officials and provide an official and public response. More information can be found at http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/WeThePeople. 
  • Open Source “We the People.” The White House plans to publish the source code of “We the People” so that it is available to any government around the world that seeks to solicit and respond to the concerns of the public.
  • Develop Best Practices and Metrics for Public Participation. We will identify best practices for public participation in government and suggest metrics that will allow agencies to assess progress toward the goal of becoming more participatory. This effort will highlight those agencies that have incorporated the most 
useful and robust forms of public participation in order to encourage other agencies to learn from their examples.
  • Reform Records Management Policies and Practices Across the Executive Branch. We will launch an initiative that will recommend reforms and require reporting on current policies and practices. The initiative  will consider changes to existing laws and ask how technology can be leveraged to improve records 
management while making it cost-effective. The initiative will seek a reformed, digital-era, governmentwide 
records management framework that promotes accountability and performance.
  • Professionalize FOIA Administration. We will continue work on a new civil service personnel category (or job series) for officials who specialize in administering FOIA and other information programs. It is important to recognize the professional nature of the work done by those administering FOIA.
  • Harness the Power of Technology. We will expand our use of technology to achieve greater efficiencies in FOIA administration, including utilization of technology to assist in searching for and processing records.  Moreover, as agencies increasingly post information on their websites, we will work to ensure that the 
information is searchable and readily usable by the public.
  • Lead a Multi-Agency Effort. This multi-agency effort will work to declassify historically valuable classified records in which more than one agency has an interest, and work to address the backlog of 400 million pages previously accessioned to the National Archives. The Center will also oversee the development of standard declassification processes and training to improve and align declassification reviews across agencies. The Center will consider public input when developing its prioritization plan, as well as report on its progress, provide opportunities for public comment in a variety of media, and host at least one public forum to update  the public and answer questions.
  • Monitor Agency Implementation of Plans. Taking account of the views and perspectives of outside 
stakeholders, the White House will carefully monitor agency implementation of the plans. As a result, 
agencies will improve their efforts to disclose information to the public and to make such disclosure useful, 
identify new opportunities for public participation in agency decision-making, and solicit collaboration with 
those outside government.
  • Advocate for Legislation to Reform and Expand Whistleblower Protections. Recently, Congress nearly enacted legislation that would eliminate loopholes in existing protections, provide protections for employees in the intelligence community, and create pilot programs to explore potential structural reforms in the remedial process. The Administration will continue to work with Congress to enact this legislation.
  • Explore Utilization of Executive Branch Authority to Implement Reforms if Congress is Unwilling to Act. Statutory reform is preferable, but if Congress remains deadlocked, the Administration will explore options for utilizing executive branch authority to strengthen and expand whistleblower protections.
  • Provide Enforcement and Compliance Data Online. Agencies will continue to develop plans for providing greater transparency about their regulatory compliance and enforcement activities, and look for new ways to make that information accessible to the public.
  • Advocate for Legislation Requiring Meaningful Disclosure. As a critical element of a broader strategy to safeguard the international financial system from such abuse of legal entities, the Administration will 
advocate for legislation that will require the disclosure of meaningful beneficial ownership information for  
corporations at the time of company formation.
  • Is Hereby Committing to Implement the EITI to Ensure that Taxpayers Are Receiving Every Dollar Due for Extraction of our Natural Resources. The U.S. is a major developer of natural resources. The U.S. collects approximately $10 billion in annual revenues from the development of oil, gas, and minerals on Federal lands and offshore, and disburses the bulk of these revenues to the U.S. Treasury, with smaller portions disbursed to five Federal agencies, 35 States, 41 American Indian tribes, and approximately 30,000 individual Indian mineral owners. By signing onto the global standard that EITI sets, the U.S. Government can help ensure that American taxpayers are receiving every dollar due for the extraction of these valuable public resources.
  • Will Work in Partnership with Industry and Citizens to Build on Recent Progress. The Administration has already made important strides in reforming the management of our natural resources to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest between the production and the collection of revenues from these resources. Signing onto the EITI initiative will further these objectives by creating additional “sunshine” for the process of collecting revenues from natural resource extraction. Industry already provides the Federal Government with this data. We should share it with all of our citizens. Toward that end, the Federal Government will work with industry and citizens to develop a sensible plan over the next two years for disclosing relevant information and enhancing the accountability and transparency of our revenue collection efforts.
  • Provide Strategic Direction to Increase Transparency. On June 13, 2011, the President furthered his commitment to Federal spending transparency in Executive Order 13576, which establishes the new 
Government Accountability & Transparency Board (GATB). Within six months of its establishment, the 
GATB will provide a report to the President recommending concrete steps that can be taken to achieve 
the goals of the Executive Order. The report will focus on integrating systems that collect and display 
spending data, ensuring the reliability of those data, and broadening the deployment of cutting-edge 
technologies that can identify and prevent fraud.
  • Release and Implement Governmentwide Reporting Requirements for Foreign Aid. These requirements will direct all Federal agencies that administer foreign assistance to provide timely and detailed information on budgets, disbursements, and project implementation. Agencies will be responsible for providing a set of common data fields that are internationally comparable. The information collected through the above initiative will be released in an open format and made available on a central portal – the Foreign Assistance 
Dashboard (ForeignAssistance.gov) – that will be updated quarterly. 
  • Improve Government Performance and Accountability. We will continue to improve the website, including adding data on other governmentwide management initiatives. In particular, the site will be updated 
to meet the requirements of the recently enacted Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, 
which requires regular progress updates on the top agency-specific performance goals.
  • Overhaul the Public Participation Interface on Regulations.gov. The U.S. will continue its vital efforts in this area by overhauling the public participation interface on Regulations.gov. We will revamp public 
commenting mechanisms, search functions, user interfaces, and other major features to help the public 
find, follow, and participate in Federal rulemakings. In this way, we will ensure what the President has called 
“an open exchange of information and perspectives.. 
  • Contribute Data.gov as a Platform. Through the U.S.-India Open Government Dialogue, the two 
countries have partnered to release “Data.gov-in-a-Box,” an open source version of the United States’
“Data.gov” data portal and India’s “India.gov.in” document portal. It will be available for implementation by 
countries globally, encouraging governments around the world to stand up open data sites that promote transparency, improve citizen engagement, and engage application developers in continuously improving  
these efforts. 
  • Foster Communities on Data.gov. We will work toward expanding the number of Data.gov “communities” that connect data related to particular subject matters with users and producers of that data. With communities focused on health, energy, and law already launched, we will work to launch new communities in education, research and development, and public safety in the next year.
  • Launch ExpertNet. This platform will enable government officials to better communicate with citizens who hav expertise on a pertinent topic. It will give members of the public an opportunity 
to participate in a public consultation relevant to their areas of interest and knowledge, and allow officials to 
pose questions to and interact with the public in order to receive useful information.
  • Begin an Online National Dialogue With the American Public. We will solicit the American public’s input on how best to improve Federal agency use of the internet and online tools.
  • Update Governmentwide Policies for Websites. We will reform the seven-year-old policy that governs the management, look and feel, and structure of Federal Government websites to make them more useful and beneficial for the public.
  • Promote Smart Disclosure. The government already discloses data to inform decision-making in many areas by, for example, providing access to comprehensive tools to facilitate the search for insurance options best suited to an individual’s specific needs. To build on this work, OMB recently issued guidance to Federal agencies on “smart disclosure.” We have also established a task force dedicated to promoting better 
disclosure policies. In response to this guidance, agencies and departments will work over the next year to 
ensure the timely release of complex information in standardized, machine-readable formats that enable 
consumers to make informed decisions in numerous domains.
  • Publish Guidelines on Scientific Data. We will develop Federal guidelines to promote the preservation, accessibility, and interoperability of scientific digital data produced through unclassified research supported wholly or in part by funding from the Federal science agencies.
  • Launch International Space Apps Competition. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and key space agencies around the world will gather with scientists and concerned citizens to use publicly-released data (e.g., Earth science and planetary observations) so as to create solutions for global challenges such as weather impacts on the global economy and depletion of ocean resources.  An international collaboration website will be created to facilitate citizen participation.

The preamble to the U.S. plan indicates: “The process of opening government is a continuing work-in-progress. This National Plan is but one step in an initiative that has produced significant results over the last two and a half years and that will continue, under the President’s leadership, in many forms in the future. Just as we will continue to generate and implement Open Government policies and reforms, so, too, we will continue to seek input from outside groups and citizens about how to create a more Open Government.”

Reactions Positive

The group We the People wrote in part:

If all of these 18 initiatives are successfully implemented, they would go a long way toward the ambitious goals the president set out on the first day of his tenure—for freedom of information, spending disclosure, data transparency, data-driven collaboration, and innovation.

More needs to be done in implementing President Obama’s open government directives and making the national security bureaucracy more transparent, but it’s clear from the administration’s track record so far that it understands the dividends in efficiency, innovation, and public trust that open government creates. What’s more, the administration is now clearly committed to working tirelessly with world leaders to make sure transparency is a central international priority.

Global Witness commented:

The United States’ dual pledge to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and to support legislation that would stop U.S. states from allowing secretive front companies to be set up represents an important step forward in the global fight against corruption and corporate secrecy…”

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said, “The Administration, in a relatively short-time frame, crafted an agenda for its open government work that is impressive in its scope and breadth. We are pleased to see the plan includes several items of high-priority to the open government community, and look forward to working with the White House and others to ensure the promise becomes a reality.”

Danielle Brian, Executive Director, Project On Government Oversight said in a statement:

We are enthusiastic about the scope of the commitments in the U.S. National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership. From protecting federal whistleblowers; improving releases under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); committing to declassifying information that should be public; increasing transparency in federal spending, in revenue collection for natural resources on public lands, and in international financial systems; committing to modernizing federal records so that agency emails will begin to be preserved, the President’s plan includes a great number of the Project On Government Oversight’s (POGO) recommendations.

Now our challenge is to help ensure these commitments become a reality over the next year. We hope to see measurable progress toward each of these goals, and believe the best way to achieve this is through the establishment of a Presidential Advisory Committee on Open Government to allow the public and experts outside government to participate.

 We have no illusions that all the reforms we seek will be achieved in one plan or one administration, but the President’s roadmap—if properly followed—will go a long way to fulfilling his promise for “unprecedented level of openness in government.”

 

 

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