Administration Falling Short on Required Consultations with Civil Society

When the White House released its third National Action Plan (NAP) as part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) on October 27, civil society groups responded with a range of feedback and analysis on the openness commitments included in the plan. The analysis varied widely by issue area; advocates for open education and foreign aid transparency wrote that the NAP made meaningful progress, while groups working on issues such as declassification, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), whistleblowing, and extractive industries had mixed and disappointed reviews.

Where many of these groups seemed to have similar reactions, however, were in their experiences collaborating with the government in the lead-up to the NAP release. The OGP requires its members to consult with civil society in drafting their plans, and has issued guidance for the consultation process. The guidance makes clear that participating governments should seek out recommendations and feedback in a variety of forms from a broad range of civil society actors, and should provide adequate responses to those recommendations so that the collaborative process is meaningful and productive. However, and many of our partners found that in the lead-up to the NAP release, the onus was largely on civil society groups to push for meetings with relevant government leads, and the meetings that were granted were often lacking in government attendance and substantive collaboration.

OTG reached out to civil society groups that worked with the government on a variety of issues as part of the OGP process. A key part of the OGP process is meetings between civil society and the relevant government officials – however, there is generally little information available on agency NAP leads with whom such meetings should occur (and some apparently have refused to have such information shared with civil society). Many groups said they had difficulty identifying and gaining access to the appropriate official in charge of the agency’s particular OGP effort. In many cases, groups were more successful in setting up consultations through pre-existing relationships with agency contacts, rather than government-initiated meetings for the express purpose of OGP collaboration.

When meetings did take place, they often fell short of civil society’s expectations. Many groups hoped that meetings with government leads would include discussion of specific language regarding the commitments for the NAP – particularly in response to the recommendations made by civil society; instead, the discussion often only went as far as high-level concepts. As a result civil society had very little knowledge of whether agencies thought recommendations were reasonable, what changes would make them more viable, and what would actually be in the plan, making it difficult to collaborate and offer feedback. While many government officials were happy to receive civil society’s recommendations, they were seldom willing to offer feedback on those recommendations, leading to what several groups described as a one-sided conversation.

Together with its partners, OTG submitted a civil society Model Plan with recommended commitments ahead of the third NAP, and then worked to set up meetings with government leads to discuss the recommendations. Following the release of the NAP, OTG and our partners created a scorecard that reflects the extent to which the commitments in the Model Plan were incorporated into the final plan. Out of 21 issue areas, just four received a score higher than 2/5, and more than half received a 0 or 1, meaning that most of our model commitments were not included in the third NAP. The scorecard reflects only the work of OTG’s coalition on our particular issue areas – and by no means the full scope of civil society recommendations or involvement – but gives a sense of civil society’s judgment of the collaboration process.

In the future, groups would like to see consultations improve in a variety of ways, including:

  • More information on the appropriate government leads with whom they should be meeting.
  • More information provided in the lead-up to consultation meetings, such as agenda items and planned discussion topics.
  • More feedback on recommendations and discussions of specific language in the meetings themselves.
  • Details on the consultation process and timeline published by the government, as laid out in the OGP guidelines on the consultation process.
  • A copy of the draft NAP well in advance of – and definitely more than 24 hours before – its publication.

These changes would be a meaningful step on the part of the Administration to making the required collaboration process on the development of the National Action Plan more productive and useful for all participants. 

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