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The Fight for Open Government

By Mike Signer | September 28, 2011 | No Comments

Democracy, at its best, is always restless — striving to improve itself, never taking no for an answer, never ceasing to achieve higher degrees of fairness, openness, and reform.  Democracy is also always in tension with the opposite force — entrenched power’s tendency to consolidate; the power of groupthink to crowd out dissenting views; and government’s bias toward self-protection.

This is why, as democracy expands around the country and even here at home, the cause of openness is so critical, and why it’s so heartening that the Obama administration chose this moment to press an international coalition to expand open government initiatives.  This week, President Obama announced, under the Open Government Partnership, an Action Plan for the United States.

This is particularly opportune as the Sunlight Foundation has just announced a campaign for transparency in the Congressional super-committee charged with reducing the deficit.

President Obama’s Action Plan contains a wide-ranging set of eight areas for reform.  They apply as well here in Virginia as across the country:

Open Government to Increase Public Integrity

  • Promote Public Participation in Government
  • Modernize Management of Government Records
  • Continue to Improve Freedom of Information Act Administration
  • Declassify National Security Information
  • Support and Improve Agency Implementation of Open Government Plans
  • Strengthen and Expand Whistleblower Protections for Government Personnel
  • Enhance Enforcement of Regulations Through Further Disclosure of Compliance Information
  • Increase Transparency of Legal Entities Formed in the U.S.

Open Government to Manage Public Resources More Effectively

  • Implement Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative
  • Increase Transparency in Spending By Applying Lessons from the Recovery Act to All Federal Spending
  • Increase Transparency of Foreign Assistance
  • Create a More Effective and Responsive Government –

Open Government to Improve Public Services

  • Expand Public Participation in the Development of Regulations
  • Use as a Platform to Spur Innovation
  • Encourage Communication between Government Officials and Citizen-Experts
  • Reform Government Websites
  • Publish Data to Help Consumers and Scientists
  • Promote Innovation Through International Collaboration

There is a lot here — but many of these elements have clear applications to our lives and to the quality of governance.  We always need to know more about what government is doing, to support whistleblowers, to expand fluid communications, and to speed the transmission of data about government.

Similarly, the Freedom of Information Act demands vigilance; we’ve written before about the need to continue to expand requirements for responsive action by government bodies in Virginia, and Governor McDonnell has also run into some trouble recently with FOIA requests for information about potentially improperly closed meetings of his Government Reform Commission.

Not only this — there are clear and urgent applications of the openness cause at a time of the fast but fragile spreading of democracies around the world.  I was recently in Turkey on a fact-finding delegation; that nation — a secular democracy in a Muslim country — prides itself on a new reform movement that hopes to clean up corruption and weed out favoritism.  In that respect, it stands as a beacon for the countries who hope to establish constitutional democracies after the exciting but ultimately unstable wave of the Arab Spring.  Yet even Turkey has a lot of work to do, meaning that the openness push is always just getting started, and that the U.S. always has a role to play.

In Virginia, the cause of improving democracy should always remain close to our heart.  So it’s good to see that President Obama — which launched President Obama to victory in 2008 — is handing us this gift of continued vigilance.

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