On July 30th, the White House hosted a public meeting on open government. The meeting was intended to inform the administration's next National Action Plan (NAP) for open government. The Plan will be published in late October 2015.
The Open Government Partnership likes to say that “Good ideas come from everywhere.” While that’s true, we’re modifying that slogan for today: Great commitments come from civil society.
Beginning in March, OpenTheGovernment.org reached out to the broader civil society community and asked a simple question: What should be in the next National Action Plan? In response we received model commitments that both build on the first two Plans, and also look to harness the unique opportunity of the OGP to increase government accountability and openness in new areas.
The resulting plan draws on the expertise of more than a dozen groups. Today I am going to spotlight 10 of the commitments that the administration should take on in their third plan.
To start off, let’s make it easier to:
Follow the Money
1. The White House should make government contracts publicly available. Taxpayers have the right to know if they’re getting a good deal, and if contractors are being held accountable. The administration can start with pilots at select agencies, and find the best system for publishing the contracts on USAspending.gov.
The administration should also build on work it has done through the first and second national action plans by committing to:
2. Improve the quality of foreign assistance data. In 2013, the US provided twenty seven billion dollars of development assistance. Throughout the first two National Action Plans, the US government has made some progress in publishing data to help track that money. Even so, the public needs more timely and comprehensive data, down to the project level. To get there, agencies should develop costed management plans to detail what information they plan to collect, and the resources they need.
The first and second Action Plans also included commitments about increasing transparency about beneficial ownership. In the third plan, the administration must take a leap, rather small steps. The government should commit to:
3. Collect and publish beneficial ownership information for all companies, LLCs, and partnerships upon formation. As our friends at Transparency International USA point out, many states collect less information about the individuals forming legal entities than they do from people applying for a drivers’ license. The next National Action Plan should make that change.
The government has a responsibility to open up about its spending in areas of national security. The administration should:
4. Make public the total size and the annual and lifetime cost of the US nuclear stockpile. Both Congress and the American people need this information to make better decisions about the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.
Opening up for accountability’s sake can be nerve-wracking for governments. That brings us to our next bunch of commitments, in which civil society has detailed concrete steps for tackling the tough issues.
Tackle the Tough Issues
5. It may seem counter-intuitive, but open government and privacy go hand in hand. The administration should commit to increase transparency about the government’s use of the public’s private information. The White House should direct federal agencies to release Memorandums of Understanding about agencies’ use, disclosure, and sharing of Americans’ personal information.
6. It is also far past time for the US government to declassify information about targeted killing and detainee treatment. The United States’ drone program has been common knowledge for years, and the administration has released information about individual strikes slowly and inconsistently. The White House should release information detailing the legal authorities governing the targeted killing program.
Classification of evidence to conceal violations of law is unacceptable, and is still happening with regard to detainee treatment. The administration should work to remedy this while it still can, starting with release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s full report on torture and the Panetta Review of that information.
7. The government’s interpretations of the law aren’t hidden from public view only when it comes to drones. Secret law shuts the public out of the debate on government authority in many areas. The President should direct the Attorney General to make publicly available copies of documents setting forth the authoritative legal interpretations of the Executive Branch. That includes Office of Legal Counsel memos, opinions, papers, and much more.
Through the Open Government Partnership, government and civil society can work together to tackle both the wonkiest openness challenges and the issues making headlines. The US should commit to:
8. Expand reporting on surveillance activities. Even in the wake of the Snowden disclosures and subsequent official releases of information, too much information about how the United States conducts electronic surveillance remains classified. The intelligence community should annually release the number of individuals or unique accounts whose communications are collected under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The issues surrounding surveillance transparency bring us to our final two commitments that look to:
Improve Government Oversight
9. The administration must clue in Congress on surveillance programs. Many members of Congress indicated that they did not receive briefings about the NSA call records programs. Other reports indicate that many members of Congress lacked any staff with the required clearance to adequately understand and brief their members on NSA activities. The administration should do everything within their power to ensure that all members of Congress – not just those on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees – have access to the information they need to fully oversee intelligence activities.
And finally, the White House should:
10. Support the extension of whistleblower protections to intelligence community contractors. Whistleblowers sound the alarm on waste, fraud and abuse. The administration should support legislation to remove the loophole that leaves intelligence contractors without safe channels to blow the whistle.
We look forward to continuing to work with government agencies throughout the development of the third Plan. As a co-founder of the Open Government Partnership, the US government and civil society share the responsibility to craft an ambitious and meaningful Plan and set a high bar for implementation.
A few minutes cannot capture the breadth of ideas and expertise contained in the Civil Society Model National Action Plan. You can find the full Plan at www.OpenTheGovernment.org.