U.S. Open Government Performance: S(low) and Less Steady
In August 2018, the Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) Independent Reporting Mechanism released its End-of-Term Report assessing U.S. performance under the government’s third national action plan covering the 2015-2017 reporting period. As the OGP’s National Researcher for the United States for the latter half of that action plan’s reporting cycle, I led the end-of-term assessment.
Shortly after the report’s release, OGP conveniently made available an updated version of its Commitment Dataset, which tracks progress on countries’ OGP commitments, as well as their potential and actual impact, across all participating OGP countries.
In conjunction with the recently released U.S. End-of-Term Report, the large number of commitments covered by the OGP’s updated Commitment Dataset offers a unique opportunity to conduct a more rigorous statistical analysis of the U.S.’ performance under the third action plan relative to its own performance under the previous U.S. action plan, and relative to a peer group of OECD countries who participate in the OGP process and are presumed to have relatively high capacity to implement their action plans.
The full analysis (which can be found here) has four key take-aways with largely negative implications for the future of open government in the U.S., which remains stalled due to the current administration’s delay in releasing the fourth national action plan.
On the positive side of the ledger, U.S. performance under the third action plan is virtually identical to its own performance under the second action plan (Finding 1), as well as that of its OECD peers (Finding 2). This continuity in U.S. performance – relative to efforts made under previous U.S. administrations and to other OECD countries – is a notable bright spot given recent work highlighting declining enthusiasm for open government initiatives under the Trump administration.
On the negative side of the ledger, the continuity in U.S. performance under relative to the second one masks a longer-term trend of advancing commitments with low potential and actual impact, and which only marginally open government (Finding 3). Looking across countries, the fact that U.S. performance remains in line with that of its OECD peers reflects a high historical (and ongoing) prevalence of low-impact action plans on a global scale.
Finally, for the ﬁrst time in its assessment history, U.S. performance under the third action plan resulted in backsliding toward less open government, as reﬂected in a ‘Did-It-Open-Government’ score of ‘Worsened’ for two commitments (Finding 4). The ﬁrst such commitment (#24, Milestone 1, “Improve Public Participation”) was intended to “increase responsiveness and encourage re-use of We the People,” an online government-facing petition platform which mandates that the White House respond within 60 days to public petitions that meet a prescribed 100,000 signature threshold. During the latter half of the OGP evaluation period (speciﬁcally from January-June 2017), nine petitions met the signature threshold. None received a government response within the prescribed window. The second such commitment (#31, “Transparency of Extractive Industries”) intended for the U.S. to deepen its engagement with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a prominent international initiative that aims to improve global transparency and accountability in the extractive sector, with a particular emphasis on payments made by extractive companies to governments, and government revenue received from extractive sector activities. Instead, on 2 November 2017 (shortly after the conclusion of the end-of-term evaluation period for the third action plan) the U.S. Department of the Interior published a letter withdrawing the U.S. from the EITI.
Taken together, U.S. backsliding under the third national action plan and the delayed release of the fourth one (which was released far later than anticipated in February 2019 following the U.S. being placed under review by the OGP Criteria & Standards Sub-Committee) cast substantial forward-looking doubt on the U.S.’ commitment to opening government more fully. Open government-watchers should find these trends worrisome, particularly against the broader historical backdrop of low-impact action plans among the OGP’s OECD member-countries.
Whether a course correction is possible for the U.S. under NAP4 remains to be seen.