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Obama Details Open Government's Next Phase

Speaking at the launch of an international open government partnership, Obama urged world leaders to foster transparency and citizen engagement.

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President Obama on Tuesday urged world leaders to push forward with transparency and citizen engagement, calling open government "the essence of democracy." At the same time, the White House rolled out the next phase of its own open government strategy.

The occasion marked the launch of the Open Government Partnership, a 46-nation effort to improve government transparency. The partnership Tuesday issued an Open Government Declaration pledging transparency, citizen engagement, and increased access to technology.

"Around the world, we're standing up for freedom to access information, including a free and open Internet," Obama said Tuesday. "Today is just the beginning of a partnership that will only grow."

Prior to the President's speech, top officials from numerous countries, including Brazil, Kenya, the United Kingdom, the Phillippines, and others gathered at Google's New York offices to discuss their own plans. Those plans included new websites, numerous pledges around transparency and equality, improvements to open data, and even public participation in the budgeting process.

[The feds also have outlined a cloud computing roadmap and reference architecture" to help federal agencies adopt this technology model.]

The voluntary partnership, which requires countries to demonstrate some commitment to openness before they join, works to bring nations together on transparency, civic participation, and accountability, according to two high-level Obama administration officials who briefed the press on background on Monday. One of the officials characterized the partnership as "a flagship initiative for President Obama and for Secretary Clinton," saying that the two have "shepherded" the effort themselves.

As part of effort, the White House made specific commitments to transparency in its open government National Action Plan. One such effort, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, will disclose details on the $10 billion in annual revenues the government gets from oil, gas, and mineral companies to develop federal and offshore sites. Another will open source the code for the White House's "We the People" online petition platform.

The plan also includes details on records management and data disclosure policy that could have longer-term effects than the one-off efforts like We the People and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. For example, the government will launch an initiative to reform records management policies, work on a new job category for specialists who administer Freedom of Information Act requests, increase the use of technology to search and process records, and lead a multi-agency effort to declassify historically valuable records.

The White House also will push for policy changes like the passage of stalled legislation that would extend more protection to whistleblowers and new legislation to require "meaningful beneficial ownership information for corporations at the time of company formation."

In many ways, the administration's new plans are simply a continuation of earlier Obama administration policy, including the Office of Management and Budget's Open Government Directive and corresponding agency open government plans, the launch of open government websites like Data.gov, the federal IT dashboard, and USASpending.gov, and a Presidential mandate in favor of a presumption of disclosure for Freedom of Information Act requests.

However, the Obama administration's commitment to open government hasn't always lived up to its rhetoric. For example, the White House has aggressively pursued whistleblowers and leakers of information, and in court cases has regularly used the defense that certain data must be shielded from the public as state secrets. An event recognizing Obama for a commitment to open government was ironically closed to the press, and reporters questioned why the briefing on Monday was done on background.

Congress' record in recent years has also been mixed. For example, while the websites of congressional committees now nearly universally stream congressional hearings, Congress has slashed a key source of funding for transparency efforts. Federal court records are also difficult to access online, and are often available only behind a paywall. The new National Action Plan and international partnership on open government are positive additional steps pointing toward increased transparency, but will ultimately be judged by their execution, and not the initial plans.

Brazil will host the second high-level meeting of the partnership in March 2012, when dozens of countries that joined the partnership this week will release their plans.

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