Remarks at Open Government Partnership Reception

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
July 12, 2011

(As prepared for delivery)

Good evening, and welcome to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the State Department. It is a distinct honor to have you all here with us this evening.

I am Maria Otero, the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, and I have the pleasure of serving as co-chair of the Open Government Partnership with Minister Jorge Hage of Brazil.

I should start by saying that Secretary Clinton was planning on being here tonight, but was called away to attend the funeral of our former First Lady Betty Ford. And since the Secretary counts ‘First Lady’ among her former titles, it was particularly important that she be there to honor the wonderful life of Mrs. Ford.

This morning, Secretary Clinton joined Brazil’s Foreign Minister, Antonio Patriota, in announcing a new multilateral initiative — The Open Government Partnership — which brings together governments and civil society organizations to improve governance in the 21st century.

Now, many in this room have just come from a full day of thought-provoking presentations and discussions on open government. But before I attempt the difficult task of summarizing such a dynamic day, let me take a step back and say a word about why we are here.

There is no question that, in the 21st century, the tenants and aspirations of democracy are bolstered by the tools and technologies at our disposal. Communication technology and other innovations are knocking down the walls that once kept populations from reaching their elected officials and from influencing public discourse. Never before in the history of self government have we been quite so capable of enhancing transparency, increasing accountability, and promoting civic engagement. And governments around the world are responding in kind:

This morning, we heard about how the government of Iceland is using social media sites to engage citizens in the rewriting of their Constitution.

In Latvia, average citizens can propose ideas for consideration by Parliament, where innovation is translated into legislative reality.

Just last week, the government of Kenya moved bureaucratic mountains by launching a first class open data website. Brazil and South Africa are both pioneering innovative tools to promote budget transparency and foster citizen engagement in budget decision-making.

And around the world, more than 80 countries now have freedom of information laws, a vital step towards open government — up from only 13 in 1990.

Additionally, civil society groups are complimenting and in many cases fueling government efforts towards open government. NGO projects in Tanzania, Uganda, Indonesia, and the Philippines are proving we can decrease the likelihood of corruption in vital government services by encouraging citizens to monitor the disbursement of government funds.

It is this critical exchange and interaction between civil society and governments that makes the Open Government Partnership unique. In addition to being a new partnership among developed and developing nations from every region in the world, OGP is a collaboration between governments and civil society organizations that are committed to making democracies work better for the people. And we are proud that at today’s meeting, well over 60 civil society organizations were represented alongside high-level representatives from nearly 60 nations from every region in the world, all here to address issues of corruption, lack of transparency and lagging civic engagement.

What has become clear, over the course of the past several months and through the discussions here today, is that we are on the leading edge of a new chapter in governance — in which a growing chorus of citizen demands can be met with the tools and processes to answer them.

Gone are the days when mountains of paper files obscure the path to government transparency. Countries from Kenya to Estonia are clearing miles and years of bureaucracy by digitizing citizen records. In Honduras, the government has increased public participation in their budget process by holding public meetings with civil society and high-level government representation throughout the country. And in Mongolia, their Independent Agency Against Corruption is keeping government officials and processes accountable to the people they govern.

These are just a few examples of many in this room tonight. And, though not all countries are as far along as others, we know that a country’s ability to rise to this challenge has little to do with the number of years it has been a democracy. Even the youngest democracies are equipped to join the movement towards open government. Because at its foundation, the Open Government Partnership is nothing more, and nothing less, than the commitment of governments to serve citizens, using the best tools and practices at our disposal in this new era.

Now, let me be clear: this is not just about technology. It is about the responsibility of governments to their citizens. It is about creating organizational change. It is about building on existing practices, expanding them and refining them — so that we are cataloging and communicating in ways that befit the 21st century. It is about a dialogue between government and civil society specifically about opening up governments to its citizens.

I am pleased that several countries have already expressed their strong interest in joining the inaugural members of the Open Government Partnership, including Kenya, Chile, Thailand, Liberia, Moldova, Canada and Israel. Together with our civil society partners, The OGP community of nations will share best practices with one another, as we face shared challenges. Additionally, the Open Government Partnership will advance open government efforts by matching government needs to private sector providers. We are doing this through a new networking mechanism, developed by our partners Global Integrity and the World Bank Institute, which will connect member nations of OGP to private sector experts and resources.

Before I close, I do want to recognize the Steering Committee of the OGP and express our collective thanks. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is collection of extraordinary leaders in open government and I want to thank them for driving this effort forward.

But tonight is not just about the accomplishments of the steering committee. Instead, it is a call to action: To all the countries in this room and beyond who are seriously committed to improving their most basic functions, we invite you to join us.

As Minister Hage reminded us at lunch, democracy means more than regular elections. It also means active citizens; a free press; an independent judiciary and legislature; and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly. None of this is easy. And it is always a work in progress. But by committing together to developing new, better standards of democratic, open governance, we will strengthen our own democracy and do a enormous favor to future generations.