Remarks to the 2011 Six-University Conference

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
American University
Washington, DC
October 27, 2011

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here with you all, and I want to commend the Six-University Conference for once again pulling together such an impressive and important platform for cross-regional engagement and sharing.

I am Maria Otero, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. As Under Secretary, I oversee U.S. foreign policy on a broad range of global issues, including Democracy, human rights, civilian security, population, refugees, and trafficking in persons -- just to name a few.

It is a broad portfolio, with many moving parts. But today, I want to talk to you about one particular piece of it -- and that is the Open Government Partnership, or OGP.

Last month, President Obama joined world leaders from forty six nations in this historic initiative whereby governments commit to improving the way they do business in the service of their people.

This partnership was born out of President Obama’s 2010 speech to the United Nations General Assembly -- just over a 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.

It is these three pillars (transparency, civic participation, and accountability) that really make up what we call open government, and they represent some of the most important aspects of good governance in the 21st century. Let me tell you why:

  • Transparency provides the public with essential information about what the government is doing.
  • Civic participation enables members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that their government can make policies with the benefit of information from society.
  • And both transparency and citizen participation are linked to the third principle of accountability, which ensures that governments are responsible to the public for their decisions and actions.

New technologies have played a particular role in building momentum behind open government globally, by democratizing the availability of government information and enabling citizens to play a direct role in both highlighting problems and helping to solve them.

No where have we seen this more than in the Arab Spring. So OGP is really a response to the times. As the democratic movements of the Middle East have shown us in recent months, today’s citizen voices are louder and clearer.

It is in this context that no less than 47 countries have come together, under the leadership of the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, and Norway -- to form the Open Government Partnership.

These governments are making a commitment to openness not only in name but also in action. With the help of civil society and the private sector, each government has committed to taking concrete steps to make their governments work better for their people.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • Brazil, El Salvador and Liberia recently passed progressive freedom of information laws, joining more than 80 countries with legislation in place, up from only 13 in 1990;
  • The Philippines and South Africa are pioneering innovative tools to promote budget transparency and foster citizen engagement in budget decision-making;
  • And through its OGP action plan, Indonesia is bringing greater transparency to the public sector, by publishing basic information and performance data for the police and public prosecution service, the tax court, and other public service offices.

Overall, OGP is based on the premise that open and responsive governments are more effective, more efficient and more innovative. From improving service delivery to reducing corruption, these efforts, and many more, are helping build more democratic and prosperous societies that enable citizens to have a more direct say in the decisions that affect their daily lives.

Open government has also been a vehicle for promoting innovation and economic growth. By liberating thousands of government datasets, many countries have built entirely new industries and saved billions of dollars by harnessing the knowledge, resources, and expertise of the private sector to help create new applications and operating systems that are changing the ways government does business.

Next month, I will travel to APEC with Secretary Clinton, where one of the topics of discussion will be open governance. She will underscore how transparency and open governance are critical for successful competition in the world economy; and for sustainable economic growth and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. And I’m pleased that several of OGP’s founding members, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico, will be in Honolulu to discuss their OGP action plans.

As OGP continues to grow and develop, it will remain a unique international initiative for a couple of 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.”

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, 47 nations are now working more closely with their citizens to improve transparency, openness, and civic engagement.

And, finally, OGP is unique because it sets forth a new platform for open conversation among all stakeholders. It has been called a new form of hybrid multilateralism, and a standard for the kind of international engagement that President Obama values and promotes. This is not about the United States leading the way. It’s about a community of countries -- each of which is on the path to better governance -- and we are all learning from one another.

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. Democracy is a constantly evolving process. But with the Open Government Partnership, we have taken a big step towards our shared goal of improving lives through openness. So I will leave it there and would be happy to your questions.