Samantha Power: OGP is President Obama’s signature governance initiative

On January 10th, 2013, the OpenGov Hub officially launched in Washington, DC.

The OpenGov Hub has similarities to incubators and accelerators, in terms of physically housing different organizations in one location, but focuses on scaling open government and building community, as opposed to scaling a startup and building a business.

Samantha Power, special assistant to President Obama and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights in the White House, spoke about the Hub, the Open Government Partnership, which she was at the heart of starting — and the broader importance of why “open government” is important to everyday citizens: improving lives and delivering results.

A video I recorded at the event, embedded below, captured her talk. Afterwards, I’ve posted text of her remarks, lightly edited for clarity. The emphases are mine.

“I’m jealous. It just feels cool. It feels like you’d come up with lots of ideas if you worked here. My office doesn’t feel quite like this, but we did hatch, collaboratively, the Open Government Partnership. 

I’ll just say a few things, mainly just to applaud this and to say how exciting it is.

The White House is a couple blocks in one direction, the State Department is another couple blocks in another, and there are a gazillion departments and agencies around who would really benefit from the infusion of energy and insight that you all bring to bear every day to your work.

President Obama started his first term issuing this Open Government Memorandum and it really did set the tone for the administration, and it does signal what a priority this was to him.

We are now on the verge of starting a second term and everybody in the administration is working to think through how does this manifest itself in the second term, the last term. You don’t get a chance after this next four years to do it again. We’re all very aware of that and we’re going to benefit from the ideas that you have.

Just to give you an indicator of what OGP has come to mean to the President — and this was catalyzed in a speech that he gave before the UN General Assembly. Those speeches are a kind of ‘State of the Union’ for foreign policy, and he chose to use that speech in year two of his presidency to talk about the fact that the old divisions, the old way of thinking of North and South, East and West, have been overtaken by open and closed and scales of openness, degrees of openness.

He challenged the countries there, the leaders, the peoples, to come back with ideas for how we could achieve more transparency, fight corruption, harness new technologies for innovation, and empower citizens. And that gave rise to this brainstorm, which in turn gave rise to this OpenGovHub, with this new leadership. We’re very, very excited about this next phrase of OGP’s growth.

This, I think in many ways, is President Obama’s signature governance initiative, and it’s something he takes extremely seriously. In bilateral meetings with foreign heads of state he often brings this up, spontaneously, if we have failed, somehow, to get it into the talking points. It is something he’s talked to Prime Minister Cameron about in the U.K. The Indonesians of course are the co-chairs now, so it’s not longer his.

The trip to Burma, which just occurred, was a very moving trip. I got to be a part of that. It was amazing to see President Barack Hussein Obama at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, maybe the next leader of that country, talking about open government, and the Open Government Partnership, and the Burmese coming out on that trip and committing to be part of the Open Government Partnership by 2015, and articulating each of the milestones for budget transparency, on disclosure for public officials, on civil liberties, freedom of information.

So [using] OGP, and this open government conversation, as a hook to make progress on issues that this stage of Burma’s long journey it’s critical that they make progress on. So I just wanted to convey how much this really matters to him personally.

Second, and you talking about this earlier today, the challenge of conversions still exists, with other governments, with officials, in my own government, and certainly with citizens and other groups around the world who don’t self-identify within the space. And so, I think, thinking through the ways in which platforms like this one that pull together success stories and ways in which citizens have concretely benefitted, this is what it’s all about.

It’s not about the abstraction about ‘fighting corruption’ or ‘promoting transparency’ or ‘harnessing innovation’ — it’s about ‘are the kids getting the textbooks they’re supposed to get’ or does transparency provide a window into whether resources are going where they’re supposed to go and, to the degree to which that window exists, are citizens aware and benefiting from the data and that information such that they can hold their governments accountable. And then, does the government care that citizens care that those discrepancies exist?

That’s ultimately what this is about, and, I think, the more that we have concrete examples of real children, of real hospitals, real polluted water and clean water, real cost savings, in administrative budget terms, the more success we’re going to have in bringing new people into this community — and I confess, I was not one. Jeremy Weinstein used to come and knock on my door, and say, ‘What is this, open government?’ and I didn’t understand it.

Then, with a few examples, I said, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to do under another rubric, you know, for a very long time.” This creates the possibility for another kind of conversation. 

Sometimes, democracy and human rights, issues like that, can get other governments on their heels. Open government creates the opportunity for conversations that sometimes doesn’t exist.

The last thing I’d say is, just to underscore a data point that’s been made, but in some sense, art imitates life, like this space imitates life. This space itself seems to be kind of predicated on the logic of open government — open idea sharing, information sharing, it’s great.

Our little OGP experiment, I think, is one that a lot of these groups are using. We benefited from what most of these groups and most of you have been doing, again, for a very long time, which is to recognize that we don’t know what we’re doing. We need to hear and learn from people who are out in the field. We have ideas and can be very abstract.

What the civil society partners have brought to the Open Government Partnership is just one example of what you’re bringing to people’s lives every day. You have to interface with people [to get] the ability to track whether policies are working. J

Just as the partnership itself has this originality to it, of being multi-stakeholder and having civil society and governments at the table, figuring out what we’re doing, so too our criteria, whether a country is or isn’t eligible, is the product of NGO data, or academic frameworks, there just has to be cross-pollination.

Again, OGP is just one version of this, but I think the more that our communities are talking to one another, and certainly, speaking from the government perspective now, just sucking in the work and the insights that you all bring to bear, the better off real people are going to be in the world, and the more likely those kids are going to be to get those textbooks.

Thanks for having me.”

Open Government Partnership hosts regional meeting in Chile

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) has released statistics on its first 16 months since its historic launch in New York City, collected together in the infographic embedded below. This week, Open government leaders are meeting in Chile to discuss the formal addition of Argentina to the partnership and the national plans that Latin American countries have pledged to implement. [LivestreamÁlvaro Ramirez Alujas, Founder of the Group of Investigation in Government, Administration and Public Policy (GIGAPP), assisted GOP with an analysis of these OPG action plans. Alujas found that:

  • 46% are linked to commitments on public integrity
  • 27% are related to the improvement of public services
  • 14% are linked to more effectively managing public resources and
  • 12% are related to increasing accountability and corporate responsibility.

Gobierno abierto

The infographic is also available en Español:

Accountability for accountability

As I noted in my assessment of 2012 trends for Radar, last year the Economist’s assessment was that open government grew globally in scope and clout.

As we head into 2013, it’s worth reiterating a point I made last summer in a post on oversight of the Open Government Partnership:

There will be inevitable diplomatic challenges for OGP, from South Africa’s proposed secrecy law to Russia’s membership. Given that context, all of the stakeholders in the Open Government Partnership — from the government co-chairs in Brazil and the United Kingdom to the leaders of participating countries to the members of civil society that have been given a seat at the table — will need to keep pressure on other stakeholders if significant progress is going to be made on all of these fronts.

If OGP is to be judged more than a PR opportunity for politicians and diplomats to make bold framing statements, government and civil society leaders will need to do more to hold countries accountable to the commitments required for participation: they must submit Action Plans after a bonafide public consultation. Moreover, they’ll need to define the metrics by which progress should be judged and be clear with citizens about the timelines for change.

Eight open government recommendations for Canada

Earlier this year, I accepted an invitation from Canadian Minister of Parliament Tony Clement, the president of Canada’s Treasury Board, to be a member of Canada’s advisory panel on open government, joining others from Canada’s tech industry, the academy and civil society. The first — and only — meeting to date was held via telepresence on February 28th, 2012.

I chose to accept the invitation to sit on this panel — in an unpaid, nonbinding and entirely voluntary role — because I viewed it in the same vein as my participation in the open consultation on the U.S. National Plan for Open Government that the White House held prior to the launch of the Open Government Partnership last year. I viewed it as an opportunity to represent a perspective at the (virtual) table that valued the role of journalism and civil society. I disclosed my involvement on the panel using the Internet, including Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Here are the recommendations I made when I had an opportunity to speak:

1) Cooperation or partnerships with media for publishing and improving open government data. The Guardian’s datablog is top-notch in covering the United Kingdom efforts. This could include the ability to bring “cleaned” data back into a media platform. This should never preclude investigative work in the service of government accountability in the use of that data nor any restrictions regarding journalistic work.

2) A mobile strategy to involve citizens in governance, particularly remote towns, an issue in the immense country of Canada. Government should not neglect mobile websites, email and txt in favor of “Web 2.0” services.

3) An “analog” strategy, to ensure all citizens offline are included in any open government process, whether it involves a consultation, election, budgetary guidance, including the use of phones and town halls.

4) A demand-sensitive approach to freedom of information requests. Media and open government advocates should be further empowered to get more access to crucial “good government” records and to ask direct questions of public officials. Dataset releases should be prioritized by both the public interest and in the public interest.

5) A focus on releasing raw government performance data about government services and about regulated industries, as means of driving transparency into industries and government, providing material for both government and corporate watchdogs to hold institutions more accountable. Joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as the United States has done, would be a substantive example of such a move.

6) A national citizen scanning initiative, akin to Carl Malamud’s “Yes We Scan” notion, to digitize government information.

7) A focus on meaningful engagement on social media platforms, not simply broadcasting political agendas, with incentives to listen to the concerns of constituents, not increase the volume of outbound communication.

8 ) Measure open data outcomes, not volume: I suggested later in the meeting that measuring the impact of open data should not come from the number of data sets published nor the number of apps on the minister’s iPhone. The success of the effort would be judged upon A) improvements to internal efficiency or productivity, B) downstream use of data, not total datasets published C) the number of applications that are actively used by citizens, whether in the service of driving greater accountability or civic utility.

A note on disclosure

Questions have been raised by author Evgeny Morozov about whether I should be on this panel or not, given that I write about open government. (He indicated on Twitter that he thinks that I should not be.) I asked several professors and editors prior to accepting the offer if they saw an issue with joining, prior to accepting the offer. All replied I could do so if I was open about my involvement and disclosed it. The Canadian government itself subsequently made that disclosure, along with my social publications on February 28th. I have been waiting for them to publish a more detailed, full record of the open government panel discussion, to no avail. (The above recommendations constitute publication of my notes made prior and during to the meeting but should not be viewed a transcript. An extremeley general, high level summary can be found at open.gc.ca.)

To date, in that context, my sole involvement has been to give feedback on Canada’s open government plan, listed above, over a teleconference screen. I have also talked with David Eaves, who also sits on the advisory panel (see his post on his involvement for more information).

When I was in Brazil last month for the Open Government Partnership conference, I did attend a dinner at the Canadian embassy that included Clement and the Canadian delegation, along with Eaves. While I was there, I talked with Canada’s deputy CIO about how I personally used social media and derived value from it, along with how I had observed large institutions accumulate and retrieve knowledge internally using collaboration software. I also talked with attendees about hockey, Brazil, dinner itself, and Eaves’ experience being a father of a newborn baby. I do not know if open government or open data were the subject of subsequent conversation with the Clement, ambassador or their staff: I left after dessert.

If you have strong opinions about my involvement, as described above or elsewhere, please ring in in the comments or contact me directly at alex@oreilly.com.

Rufus Pollock on open data, civil society and the Open Government Partnership

Rufus Pollock, co-founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, was interviewed at the Open Government Partnership conference (OGP) in Brasilia, Brazil in April 2012.

In the video embedded above, Pollock talks about his involvement with OGP and how civil society will be involved in holding government accountable. He also explains what open data means to him, including a definition and how it relates to traditional open government goals of transparency and accountability. Pollock recommends the Open Data Handbook as a resource to learn more and put data to work in the service of better government.

Open Government Week in Review: White House update, eGov setbacks and global OGP potential

Friday’s White House open government “status update” capped a historic week for open government in Washington. The Blue Button movement now has a website: BlueButtonData.org. Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra challenged the energy industry to collaborate in the design of a “green button” modeled after that Blue Button. White House director of digital Macon Phillips answered questions about “We the People” and the White House e-petitions. The Department of Transportation held a public consultation for the its Digital Transportation Exchange (DTE) open government initiative. President Obama signed the America Invents Act into law.

Progress and Setbacks

Quiet successes have been matched with setbacks to open government in Washington over the past three years, including two from this past week. Several journalism organizations have protested the U.S. federal government taking down doctor discipline and malpractice data from the Web. The Obama administration also faces an uncertain future for funding for its Office of Management and Budget’s open government initiatives after theU.S. Senate appropriations committee shortchanged the Electronic Government Fund by some $10 million dollars this week.

Global Open Government Partnership

While neither of those stories are good data points for the state of open government at the federal level, they are both part of a much larger narrative where some 40 countries (including the founding 8 members) have reportedly now submitted letters of intent to join this unprecedented international open government partnership.

Next Tuesday, I’ll be in New York on the same day that President Obama introduces the U.S. National Plan for open government as part of its commitment to the Open Government Partnership As John Wonderlich observed at the Sunlight Foundation on Friday, preparing for the U.S. National Plan and then delivering upon whatever is contains will be a “complex, ongoing effort that takes dedicated effort and attention,” adding to the progress towards a more transparent, participatory, collaborative or innovative government made to date.

In 2011, some of the most dynamic changes may be found the state and local level in the United States. After next week, the eyes of many more people will be open to the broader sweep of a global movement towards transparency. The world can watch the live streaming coverage of the “Power of Open” at Google’s YouTube channel from 9-10:30 AM and from 1:30-4:30 PM. Event details are available at OpenGovPartnership.org”>, including agenda, participants, presentations and other materials. I’m looking forward to telling that story using Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and next Tuesday, where I’ll be liveblogging at the O’Reilly Radar all day. techPresident’s associate editor, Nick Judd, will be tweeting and liveblogging. Follow the #OGP hashtag for the real-time conversation about the Open Government Partnership:


Open Government Partnership expands to include at least 22 countries at launch

With two weeks left before a historic announcement in New York City at the United Nations, the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) has expanded to include fourteen more countries. The news of the expansion was first reported by FreedomInfo.org, which quoted an unnamed U.S. official.

The newly added countries include Kenya, Guatemala, Honduras, Albania, Macedonia, Malta, Georgia, Moldova, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Israel, Croatia, Mongolia and Lithuania. The original eight country members of the OGP are the United States and Brazil (co-chairs of OGP), South Africa, the United Kingdom, Norway, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines.

“These are governments from whom we’ve received formal letters of intent,” said Caroline Mauldin, special assistant to Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero at U.S. Department of State. “We’re very energized by the number of countries who are ready to step up to the Open Government Partnership plate.” Mauldin tells me that more letters of intent are still coming in, which will add further to the participants.

Expanding the number of countries committing to more open government is not in principle a bad thing, although the devil is the details, as ever. Brazil and the Philippines, for instance, are still working on Freedom of Information laws. We’ll learn more over the next two weeks, until the official Heads of State launch on the margins of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. I’ll be sharing news and information as I go during the next 14 days and from the Big Apple on September 20th.

“All of the new countries are committing to developing their own country action plans in consultation with civil society, which they will announce at an OGP meeting in March 2012,” said Mauldin. “The ‘consultative process’ is the part of OGP that guarantees an ongoing, iterative dialogue with civil society.”

These letters will commit participating countries to broad principles but leave many specifics to individual governments. “OGP is structured to foster accountability between a government and its people,” said Mauldin. “A country can design their own mechanisms, so they’ll likely vary from one place to the next; of course, one key reason why countries are joining is so they can learn from one another.” That flexibility could be important in many contexts, as Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maio observed in his post on the Open Government Partnership:

Open government can be used to fight corruption, to increase the trust in government, to counterbalance the effects of excessive churn in government, to reduce the cost of government, and so forth. But in order to deliver on these different objectives, it does require different approaches.

The risk – like similar initiatives on e-government led by the UN or the EU have clearly shown – is that leading countries tend to showcase their approaches, which are almost automatically taken as best practices. But what is a best practice for a federal agency in the US or a large city in the UK may be either irrelevant or even counterproductive in a place like Moldova or Albania, just to name two.

All that said, it bears noting that the OGP is substantially expanding and the news seems to have been leaked without attribution initially, as opposed to an official announcement by the White House, State Department or OGP or anyone else on the record. The open government community should expect ongoing announcement regarding new participants, the September 20th event, a declaration and all letters to go up on OpenGovPartnership.org — but it’s not there yet, and the @OpenGovPart Twitter account has gone silent. In the U.S., the recommendations that have been collected by the White House as part of its consultation for the U.S. National Plan are only public if the entities submitting them have published them, like the open government recommendations by Clay Johnson at Expert Labs.

For more context, Nick Judd has published a comprehensive report on the expansion of the OGP roster over at techPresident and my notes from the White House open government partnership consultation. FreedomInfo.org also collected more OGP news from South Africa, India and the new White House’s epetition initiative.