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International Policy and Open Government: No-Go Zone, or Leapfrogging Late Adapters?

Photo: Linh Do / CC2.0

The open government agenda has largely sidestepped the international policy arena. Many of the thinkers who launched openness initiatives have made that choice deliberately, seeing foreign policy as either devoid of big data opportunities or actually inappropriate for public transparency for security reasons. After Snowden and other massive leaks of sensitive intelligence information, the arena may be perceived as too ideologically contested, as well. But this conclusion misses developments already happening in global governance—not so much that government-held data is being opened to the public, but that governance itself is being opened to non-governmental inputs and actors.

It should be noted that open government did make an appearance in international policy when the Obama Administration launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The U.S. joined an initial 7 countries—now up to 69—in holding civil society consultations, drawing up national action plans, and making commitments to increase transparency in areas from legislation to policing to using town criers to share budget data with the public. In addition to those changes on the government side, OGP has offered civil society groups a spark and a mandate for their work. Still, the appearance of open government as a foreign policy tool abroad has not changed the reality at home. The open government agenda sits uncomfortably with traditional ideas about secrecy and expertise in foreign affairs.

However, the expectation that foreign and security policymaking are the exclusive provenance of governments is under assault from another direction. “Multistakeholderism” —the trend toward non-governmental entities, both civil society and private sector, joining national and international authorities at the negotiating table and in the trenches afterwards, when new rules and norms are being developed and implemented-- arose independently of the open government movement, but it too is “opening” global governance dramatically. Perhaps the best known is last year’s Paris Climate Agreement, in which non-state parties could join nation-states in pledging to keep the global rise in temperatures below two degrees Celsius—which more than 700, from corporations to municipalities to trade unions, did. Despite its clunky name, this variant of “open” global governance is looking like the wave of the future—from Internet governance to codes of conduct for mining and security contractors to reforming agriculture to promoting development.

The premise behind the open government movement—the one that’s gotten so much attention at home—was that governments are vast repositories of data—which citizens have the right to know, and with which citizens will often be able to use to make change in ways that government cannot. It is perhaps an irony that the Administration which has made open government a byword at home and internationally has been more aggressive than any predecessor in protecting information in the national security space—and has suffered more embarrassing failures to protect information. Actors from Russian and Chinese intelligence to contractors with dreams of grandeur have mocked the U.S. ability to keep information secret. Edward Snowden’s justification for his theft and release of reams of classified information, and the campaign mounted by his supporters, have argued that what others consider treason was in fact opening the government. As a result, talk about extending the open government agenda to the national security space will be met with more eye-rolling and outright hostility than eight years ago, not less.

But the addition of outside stakeholders to international norm-setting, rule-making and implementation offers potential by turning the “opening” in the opposite direction. Rather than mining data provided by a more open government, contemporary multi-stakeholder processes are contributing data, technology and analysis—but also on-the-ground operators, political will, and cold cash—to governments and international organizations. To cite just two examples, technology whizzes deployed knowledge that few if any government bodies possessed to create and run ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). GAVI, the global vaccine alliance, deployed the know-how of the pharmaceutical industry and the financial wherewithal of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to address a problem on which national and international institutions lacked both resources and will.

Making the national security apparatus more open to inputs and collaboration is no small matter, either. The Agency for International Development, and in Obama’s first term the Department of State, built new bridges and a variety of intriguing pilot programs, but it is far from clear that these efforts have achieved scale to survive less-committed leadership, or that they have fundamentally altered the way American practitioners think about diplomacy and statecraft.

Indeed, a forthcoming review of one of the Administration’s most interesting innovations in foreign policy-making, the Atrocity Prevention Board, calls for improvements to its government-civil society interface that would permit non-governmental actors to serve as real-time sources of information and response—not just an advocacy and fundraising adjunct or worse, a set of powerless critics. The recently-announced formation of an interagency Climate and National Security Working Group represents a parallel opportunity. The Memorandum outlining the new group’s functions sees it setting research requirements, cataloging data gaps, and developing shared analyses of key data-driven questions, with “production and exchange of climate data and information with relevant stakeholders, including the United States Intelligence Community, and private sector partners, as appropriate.” The experience of the Atrocity Prevention Board, and public-private partnerships at the State Department and elsewhere, demonstrates how challenging it is for the USG to be in open, listening mode, but also how rewarding.

It seems likely that, whether they regard it as part of an open government agenda or not, future national security policymakers will find it necessary and even advantageous to wrestle more analysis, policymaking and implementation processes “open” to inputs from outside. The question they ought to be asking, and where domestic policy thinkers can be offering answers – what lessons do eight years of an open government agenda have to teach leapfrogging late adapters?


Heather Hurlburt is director of the New Models of Policy Change initiative at New America's Political Reform program.