I think our moderator’s doing an excellent job today. Shall we give him a round of applause? I’d like to start by extending a huge thanks to President Hollande and the entire French government and French civil society, the engines behind this extraordinary summit, and to thank them for their leadership and their commitment to this partnership and the values it represents, which we heard both from the president and, most recently, from the Foreign Minister. I’d also like to thank all the representatives of countries – the heads of state and government, the ministers, and all the representatives of civil society who have come here – including the co-chair, Manish Bapna. Collectively, this has been a tireless effort to try to make our governments more open, accountable, and effective. It is a work in progress, as we know.
Back in January 2011, several of us from the Obama Administration – together with leaders from seven other governments and nine civil society organizations – came together in Washington to kick around ideas about how to strengthen governance. If you had told any of us at that time that those discussions would lead to the creation of a partnership that, in just five years, would include 75 countries that are home to more than two and a quarter billion people – we probably would have questioned your sanity.
But if you believe in the power of transparency, accountability, and fundamental freedoms to improve citizens’ lives, it can be hard to feel optimistic lately. For ten years in a row, according to Freedom House, political rights and civil liberties have declined around the world. Since 2012, more than 140 laws restricting freedom of association or assembly have been enacted or proposed in more than 65 countries.
And while in the past we may have been able to draw some comfort from the fact that a core group of countries continued to move toward greater openness, inclusivity, and respect for human rights, the last year has proven that even the progress of those stalwarts cannot be taken for granted.
In one liberal democracy after another, as we’ve heard from many speakers today, governments that worked with civil society to give their citizens a greater voice have been ushered out in many instances by some of the very people that they were seeking to empower. Instead of greater openness and accountability fostering increased trust in government, arguably, it has in certain places led to greater distrust. And rather than selecting leaders who embrace the core principles of OGP, people are increasingly turning to populists who promise to revert to an isolationist, top-down model of government – one that tends to view civil society as an adversary rather than an ally; and argues – in some places, at least – for retreating from the world and retreating from multilateral efforts like this one.
This is the global context in which we meet. And while no one can attend this conference and question the vibrancy of OGP, these trends raise important questions about the partnership’s evolving role. And today, I would like to briefly set out three of those questions.
First, how can we do better not only at meeting our commitments – but in ensuring that they are improving the real lives of real people? It is a problem, as others have noted, that a significant proportion of the 3,000 pledges made in our collective National Action Plans remain unfulfilled. That’s a problem. But it is an even greater problem that so many of the commitments that have been “met” have had limited impact in the lives of our citizens. What is the value, in fact, of passing a Right to Information Act if people don’t understand how to use it, or understand why even they would want to? What use is a platform that posts all the contracts for extracting natural resources if the data is impenetrable to all but the technical experts?
Second question – how can we broaden our base of support among citizens? For while the value of greater transparency and accountability may be self-evident to those of us in this room – to many of our citizens, it is not – these are abstract concepts. To show the value, we have to show and not tell, the benefits of open government. Consider corruption, a problem that weakens institutions, deepens poverty, and erodes trust everywhere. It is no surprise that efforts targeting corruption resonate with citizens, such as the registries that Ireland and Chile have set up requiring lobbyists to report every time they meet with a public official.
To bolster these efforts across borders, the United States is joining today with the governments of Argentina, Australia, Denmark, and Norway, and the Open Society Foundation, in launching the Global Anti-corruption Consortium, which will provide nearly $6 million to support the work of investigative journalists and global advocates to expose international graft so that corrupt officials can be brought to justice.
Third and final question from me this evening – how can we do more to partner with civil society groups and governments that face enormous obstacles in trying to open up their governments? Because sometimes the desire to do right and the boundless energy – that so many reformers within government and so many outside bring – are not enough to break out of cycles of impunity, not enough to overhaul institutions that have gotten used to acting as if citizens served them, rather than the other way around – you need robust support, training, and outside expertise. Yet while virtually every problem that each of the member countries are confronting has been tackled somewhere before by an NGO or a government sitting in this very room – and despite of all the working groups and peer platforms that we have set up and our access to virtual communities, our ability to create virtual communities – most countries are still largely going it alone.
We can and must do much, much more to lend them a hand, to be useful. Donor countries need to invest more in supporting counties in implementing their National Action Plans, which include pioneering initiatives like the one being launched by countries like Sierra Leone – which for the first time ever is making public data on sexual assault, whose perpetrators have almost never been held accountable. Civil society members also, as we know, have a key role to play. In 2014, for example, when Sri Lanka was debating whether to pass a Right to Information Act, a leader of the American Society of News Editors – Kevin Goldberg – traveled to Colombo, where he spent a week making the case to government officials and civil society activists for how such legislation could be used practically to uncover information that governments are often very reluctant to share. I know you have dozens – hundreds, probably, of other such examples, but if this partnership is really to thrive in the years ahead, this network has to deliver for those who are looking for a shoulder to cry on or a technical answer that would lie in the head and the heart of people here.
Let me conclude. A number of you have asked whether the incoming Administration in the United States will have the same commitment to OGP as the one that I have had the privilege of serving for the last eight years. Only they can answer that question. But ask me whether America’s commitment to open government will persist, will endure, and I can tell you without hesitation that it will. Because for all that the Obama Administration has done to try to invest in this partnership, the true drivers of greater transparency and accountability in the United States – the ones who have come up with the most impactful innovations, and the ones who have ensured that we have pushed ourselves to fulfill our commitments – are the American people. It is the U.S.-based groups, and even the international groups who come along, who have pushed U.S. officials – even of good faith and of high political will – past their comfort zones, to do things that otherwise would not have happened. That is what open government is all about. It is bigger than any individual. It is bigger than any administration. It is, and always will, depend on the people that a government and an administration and a leader of a country serve. And in their hands – in your hands – OGP’s future is very bright indeed. I thank you.
Cross posted from Samantha Powel: United States Mission to the United Nations