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Faces of Open Government – Jessica Klein

In this section of the OGP newsletter, we feature individuals from government and civil society, and ask them about their experiences. Here is what Jessica Klein (Special Advisor, Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources, and ForeignAssistance.gov Project Lead, U.S. Department of State) had to say:

a. How does open government make a difference in peoples lives?

Open government allows citizens to better understand the work their government is doing and hold it accountable for how resources are being spent. Within the American public, there are big misconceptions as to how much the U.S. government spends on foreign assistance and the value of those programs. While many people think over 25% of the U.S. federal budget is spent on assistance, the reality is that foreign assistance hovers around 1%. Open government can show how that relatively small percentage of the federal budget can transform lives around the world by providing treatment for HIV/AIDS, food for the malnourished, support for clean energy, or assistance during natural disasters. With an understanding of where and how these activities are taking place, citizens can lend their support for these programs and also hold their government accountable for the quality and efficacy of the work

b. Describe one OGP commitment from your country that you are proud of.

The U.S. Government has shown a strong commitment to Open Government. There are many efforts across the U.S. Government making significant progress toward our OGP commitments. Increasing transparency for foreign aid is an important one.  ForeignAssistance.gov, our International Aid Transparency Initiative commitments, and our many other aid transparency activities are visible signs of the way we have embraced open government, transparency, and accountability. Additionally, the U.S. is the largest donor of foreign aid, and a key element of our assistance efforts is working to promote transparent and accountable governments around the world. Because of our support for these elements in governance, we have an increased responsibility to lead by example. 

How much money is being spent on foreign assistance and where the money is going should be available to the public. The U.S. has coordinated across agencies to get data from 10 agencies representing 98% of the foreign assistance portfolio open to the public in a standard format on a regular basis. The level of detailed data we are working to make public is far greater than has ever been shared before. There are a number of challenges that agencies still have to work through to produce sustainable, timely, and quality reports.  However, there is a strong commitment to improve aid transparency, and despite the challenges, we continue to make progress.

c. How have you benefited from exchanging ideas with civil society?

In my experience, governments can benefit greatly by embracing the open government principles and working with civil society on exchanging ideas, soliciting best practices, and sharing challenges. Everyone experiences challenges in their work and being open to frank conversations about our problems or obstacles has enabled me to have a better understanding of my civil society partners’ goals, to come up with creative solutions, and to manage external expectations realistically. 

For example, we determined it was time for a redesign to http://www.ForeignAssistance.gov to make the site more user-friendly in response to civil society comments. We held consultation sessions with many different groups of stakeholders to understand what features, capabilities, data, and information they would prefer. We learned a lot from this process and ultimately, the civil society’s expertise, perspective, and contributions significantly improved the way we redesigned the site. 

d.  How are you working to overcome challenges in opening up government in your country?

There are two major challenges to increasing aid transparency, the lack of data and difficulty in demonstrating the utility of sharing the data to government agencies. These challenges become more difficult because resolving one is very dependent on the other. 

The frequency and volume of the data required for our international aid transparency commitments necessitates a systemized process for collection. However, open data is a relatively new concept that did not exist when agencies developed their data management systems, and most current systems are not designed to collect the data necessary for aid transparency. We are working with all agencies to help them understand the extent of the data demands and related system improvements, as well as engaging with the civil society and other stakeholders to prioritize data needs and develop innovative solutions to overcome these challenges.

The second major challenge is developing a stronger culture of sharing information within the government. The sharing and collaborative approach of open government isn’t imbued into the culture of many U.S. agencies. Agencies, understandably, focus on the possible negative outcomes of releasing data. We have not sufficiently demonstrated to agency staff the benefits of open data to their daily work. The current data gaps exacerbate the fear of negative outcomes and lack of demonstrated utility. We are combatting this by improving the data quality, sharing information incrementally, and engaging senior leadership to provide support and momentum for change.  

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