2017 Trade Transparency Roundtable: Advancing an openness agenda on trade negotiations

On January 13, 2017, OpenTheGovernment.org and our partners at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) held a high-level roundtable meeting, bringing together experts to discuss avenues for advancing a more open and transparent approach to trade negotiations. The morning segment included OTG partners and experts from the Open Digital Trade Network. In the afternoon, representatives from the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), along with individuals from other agencies and staff from Congressional offices involved in trade policy joined the meeting.

The morning session began with an exchange of ideas about past and ongoing civil society initiatives, and presentations of proposals on ways to advance transparency and participation in trade negotiations. EFF presented its background document, developed in coordination with members of the Digital Trade Network, and OTG discussed the proposal submitted to the USTR last year (see the recommendations here). As participants presented their proposals, the group developed a set of recommendations to present, in the afternoon session, to the government representatives, and discussed potential opportunities to amplify efforts to make trade negotiations more transparent and inclusive.

The event centered on discussing the following recommendations: 1.) Publish U.S. textual proposals on rules in ongoing international trade negotiations; 2.) Publish consolidated texts after each round of ongoing negotiations; 3.) Appoint a “transparency officer” who does not have structural conflicts of interest in promoting transparency at the agency; 3.) Open up textual proposals to a notice and comment and public hearing process; and 5.) Make Trade Advisory Committees — if they are to be retained in addition to the public notice and comment and public hearing process — more broadly inclusive. (See the full set of recommendations discussed in this post by EFF).

Today’s trade deals extend well beyond traditional trade matters, and have a direct impact on public health, the environment, digital rights, and a number of other policy areas (See Public Citizen’s background on the TPP). Moreover, the current Trade Advisory Committee system tends to provide representatives of affected industries with disproportionate influence. It favors these private sectors interests over public interest representatives. In the case of the TPP, for example, industry representatives had direct access to the texts and the ability to influence the agreement, while the public and members of Congress were largely denied such access. This structure has fueled distrust, and led to opposition to trade deals when the contents of the agreements are leaked or finally released. An alternative approach would be for the USTR to manage its trade negotiation process in the same way as other federal policymaking– through a public notice mechanism that allows for comments on draft texts throughout negotiations, and on final texts.  

The roundtable provided a useful forum to gather feedback from the government representatives on limitations and opportunities for advancing reforms going forward. Participants discussed the potential to advance reforms through the legislation that Rep. Dingell introduced last session (the “Promoting Transparency in Trade Act“), and is preparing to re-introduce this Congress. The bill draws closely from the recommendations that OTG and partners delivered to the USTR last fall, including provisions that would require disclosure of U.S. text proposals on rules in ongoing international trade negotiations, as well as disclosure of consolidated texts after each round of negotiations.

The roundtable was part of OTG’s efforts to amplify the openness voice in conversations on reforming the U.S. trade negotiation processes, build support from a broader swath of civil society actors, and raise public awareness about the importance of transparency in trade deals.

For more on OTG’s work relating to trade transparency, see:

OTG endorses Promoting Transparency in Trade Act

Recommendations for the United States Trade Representative 2016 Open Government Plan

Op-Ed (The Hill): Secrecy, democracy and the TPP: trade transparency is what the public wants–and needs

Op-Ed: The Demand for Transparency on Trade Negotiation: What the public needs to know about the TPP

Open government groups call for new USTR “transparency officer”

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