International Action On the Open Government Front

Today I am writing in from Toledo, Spain. I am pleased to be attending the 2011 Conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA). This morning I spoke on a panel with the National Archivist of Belgium, Karel Velle, and Director-General Arquivo Nacional Brazil, Jaime Antunes da Silva, for the ICA’s first plenary meeting on Open Government.

One of the contributions of the National Archives to the Administration’s National Action Plan for Open Government is to explore hosting a meeting of the national archivists of the eight founding members of the International Open Government Partnership to discuss our vital role in ensuring open government at the national level. Today’s meeting is a first step in that direction.

Here’s what I told the gathering:

Open Government Panel—the View from Washington

The philosophy of Open Government is embedded in the creation of the United States.  Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, writing from Paris in 1789, said:  “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government…that whenever things go so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

From the first day of his administration, President Obama has made Open Government a priority.  In a meeting with his senior staff on the day after his inauguration in January of 2009 he said:  “Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this Presidency.  Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made.  It means recognizing that Government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know.  And that’s why as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans—scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs—because the way to solve the problems of our time is…as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.”

This played a big part in my accepting the President’s nomination to become the Archivist of the United States.  And one month after I was sworn in, he issued the Open Government Directive stating:  “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.  Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

The Directive required every Federal Agency—some 275 in the United States—to create Open Government Plans which incorporated the principles of Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration.  What steps will your agency take to conduct your work more openly and publish your information online?  How will you promote opportunities for the public to participate throughout the decision-making process?  And how will you improve collaboration and cooperation with other Federal Agencies and non-Federal Agencies, the public, and non-profit and private entities in the fulfillment of your Agency’s mission?

This mandate was an easy one for the National Archives and Records Administration.  The principles are embedded in the mission of my agency.  The work we do everyday is rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee their rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation.

In September of 2010, President Obama, in an address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, reported on his Open Government work and challenged the membership to come back in one year and report on their own open government progress.

This past July, the United States and Brazil convened the first discussion on the International Open Government Partnership in Washington.  The Partnership is structured around a set of five “grand challenges” that governments face:  Improving Public Services, Increasing Public Integrity, More Effectively Managing Public Resources, Creating Safer Communities, and Increasing Corporate Accountability.  The Partnership requires from each participant a commitment to the principles of Transparency, Citizen Participation, Accountability, and Technology and Innovation.

Last month, again in New York before the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Obama reported on the United States National Action Plan for the International Open Government Partnership.  My favorite line from the Plan states that “The backbone of a transparent and accountable government is strong records management that documents the decisions and actions of the Federal Government.”  Music to my ears!

I report this to you this morning to let you know that eight countries have already delivered their commitments to the International Open Government Partnership.  They are:  Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  And 38 other countries are in the process of developing commitments.  This is wonderful news for all of us and sheds well deserved light on the work that we all do.  And I hope that our next gathering will provide an opportunity for the participants share information.

I urge you to take a look at the Open Government Partnership, available at: