International Right to Know Day Celebration

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
American University, Washington College of Law
Washington, DC
September 28, 2011

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here with you all for the celebration of International Right to Know Day.

As you have heard, I am Maria Otero, the U.S. 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.

The Open Government Partnership -- or OGP -- has had a big month. In fact, with its formal launch just over a week ago, I’d venture to say that everyone who believes in the principles of open government has had a big month.

Last Tuesday, President Obama joined world leaders from forty six nations to launch OGP in a historic demonstration of commitments from governments to improve the way they do business in the service of their people.

This partnership was born out of President Obama’s 2010 speech to the UN General Assembly -- just one year ago -- in which he called on governments around the world to recommit to transparency and accountability, to increase civic engagement, and to harness new technologies in the pursuit of better governance and a better world.

But it was also born out of two decades of increasing attention and demands from civil society and government champions -- many of whom are on the agenda here today -- for governments to recognize that open is not scary or unattainable; but instead that open is good for everyone and well within our reach.

So here we are, one year later, and the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership -- the US, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, and Norway -- we have welcomed no less than thirty eight countries as they join us in stretching the traditional notions of government in twenty first century.

Let me just say that again; because I think it's remarkable. Thirty eight governments -- in addition to the eight founding countries of OGP -- have committed not only to open government in name and theory but also in action. Forty six total governments that, with the help of civil society and the private sector, will take concrete steps to make their governments work better, respond better, and serve better.

The really phenomenal point -- even beyond the sheer number of countries -- is that they have signed up voluntarily, entirely out of appreciation for OGP’s founding premise: that open is good for all of us, and that the tools of our digital, globalized age make it easier than ever for governments to be more accountable, more transparent and more engaged with citizens.

In President’s Obama’s words, open government is the essence of democracy. And we are seeing around the world how governments are returning to that essence. Many of you are familiar with the stand-out examples that are demonstrating what is possible through open government:

  • To start with, we celebrate today the fact that more than 85 countries now have government transparency laws, guaranteeing citizens the right to seek information.
  • One of those countries is Kenya, which is using technology to increase civic participation, to support innovation, and to make development more participatory and transparent. Earlier this summer, it became the first African country to launch an online portal that gives citizens access to government data.
  • In Latvia, citizens can introduce proposals to their parliament by collecting signatures through an online petition. The United States just launched a similar tool -- “We the People” -- as part of our OGP country action plan.
  • Another ground breaking example is Iceland, which this year updated its constitution by “crowd sourcing” the changes directly with citizens over social media.
  • And in Brazil, the expenses of government officials are posted online within 24 hours -- meaning extravagant purchases will not go unnoticed and officials are sticking to honest, official expenses.

Thanks to the leadership of OGP’s steering committee -- which itself is a partnership between governments and civil society -- we are seizing the opportunity before us, and setting a new affirmative agenda for countries to follow suit. Let me outline the three ways we are doing this:

1. Through the OGP declaration -- available on OGP’s new website -- we affirm that openness can help us do our jobs better in serving and responding to our people.

2. Through country action plans that are informed by civil society, we are grounding this commitment in concrete steps. These plans will continue to evolve, but I can tell you that they are already making governments think, talk and act in new ways.

3. And we are generating momentum for a race to the top in good governance. The thirty eight countries we welcomed last week will now begin the development of their own action plans; and we look forward to welcoming more countries to the Partnership in the coming weeks and months.

As OGP continues to grow and develop, it will remain a unique international initiative for two reasons that I think are worth mentioning.

First, it is unique in that it relies on productive collaboration with civil society -- from the Steering Committee itself, to the development and assessment of country action plans. As President Obama said last week, “our countries are stronger when we engage citizens beyond the halls of government…our civil society representatives [are a part of OGP] not as spectators, but as equal partners in this initiative.”

And second, OGP is unique in that it strengthens government accountability, not between OGP and a member country, but between the member country and its people -- where accountability is most important. Through OGP, 46 nations are now committed their respective members of civil society to improve transparency, openness, and civic engagement.

Of course, just because we’ve set the process in motion, with great momentum, does not mean the path is fully forged. Governance will never be simple or easy. Many governments, including the United States, are still learning. Our country action plans may evolve as time goes on. But with the Open Government Partnership, we have taken a big step towards our shared goal of improving lives through better governance.

So I want to thank you for your support and look forward to working with you as we make governments more open around the world.