Parliamentary Monitoring Organization (PMO) Leaders Conference Dinner

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Mexican Cultural Institute
Washington, DC
April 30, 2012

Good evening. It is a great pleasure to be here with you this evening in this beautiful location. Thank you Shari and Ambassador Sarukhan for inviting me to participate in this event, and for your kind words of introduction.

I would like to begin by thanking the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Sunlight Foundation, and the Latin American Network on Legislative Transparency for their initiative in hosting this first global gathering of leaders of parliamentary monitoring organizations. This is an important initiative, and is an important undertaking for those of us who strive for more transparent, accountable and open governments around the world.

Those gathered here know that democratic political systems are built on a foundation of free and fair elections, separation of powers, and independent branches of government.

We know that the effective promotion and protection of human rights requires governance based on the consent of the governed.

We know that functioning democratic institutions, especially legislatures, are essential for enabling the free exchange of ideas and fostering healthy public discourse. And we know that, in order for the democratic process to be legitimate, broad political participation is essential.

Parliaments or legislatures are, in a sense, the most direct line that government has to the governed, especially when it comes to communication and to representation of the people’s wants and needs.

The question that brings us here tonight -- and to this great conference -- is how can we build on those conduits of communication -- between elected officials and citizens, to increase openness, transparency, and accountability in government.

As Secretary Clinton said earlier this month in Brazil, the United States is “convinced that one of the most significant divisions among nations will not be north/south, east/west, religious, or any other category so much as whether they are open or closed societies.”

Your efforts as parliamentary monitoring organizations are contributing to that vision by strengthening the core components of open, democratic governance.

But even as we transition to a new paradigm -- between open and closed societies -- we face challenges. Among those challenges is a concerning decline in press freedom. As we look forward to commemorating World Press Freedom Day in the coming days, it’s important to recall that freedom of expression -- for the media and for all citizens -- is an essential component in building open societies and successful democracies.

We need a free media to help put pressure on governments and tell the story of every day democracy. As our new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine has said, press freedom is the moral equivalent of oxygen. It guarantees that a society remains vibrant, energetic and healthy.

A second challenge we face is access to information. Increasingly, governments are passing legislation that codifies a the citizens’ right to information -- but we face an implementation gap in many countries around the world.

One of the way we are addressing the challenges of open governance is through the [aptly named] Open Government Partnership, which I understand you all heard about earlier today.

When President Obama launched OGP last September -- with the government of Mexico, and the rest of the international steering committee -- we brought a new light to the challenges that citizens and governments have been facing for hundreds of years.

OGP provides an international stage for a new, reinvigorated conversation on these topics. And it follows that high-level discussion with action.

To facilitate that action, OGP relies on civil society to actively engage their governments at every stage of the initiative -- from the development of country action plans, to the implementation of commitments, to the monitoring of government progress on promises.

I should point out that, though I am the United States representative to the Steering Committee from the State Department, OGP is as much -- if not more so -- about domestic initiatives.

Secretary Clinton asked me to lead the Open Government Partnership because the United States understands that openness is the foundation and the path to more just and equitable societies. But ultimately, OGP’s success is in its domestic achievements around the world -- which truly impact everyday lives. And that, of course, is where you all come in. In order for OGP to really succeed, we need you to engage within your country -- especially with parliaments and legislatures.

This past January, I traveled to Chile for a conference hosted by Senator Hernan Larrain on the importance of transparency in parliaments. In my discussions there, it became very clear that legislatures should be a major part of OGP’s growth and implementation as it matures. So I was pleased that we had a specific panel on this topic at the First Annual Meeting in Brasilia earlier this month in Brasilia.

At that meeting, 55 OGP governments came together with over 200 civil society organizations, private sector companies, and academic institutions. And we heard about the newest set of OGP commitments from participating governments, including:

  • The establishment of public accountability mechanisms, including a new “openness barometer” in the Slovak Republic and “a governance observatory” in Peru,
  • The creation of accessible open data portals, which cover topics from crime statistics to political party funding to local budgeting, and
  • The introduction of e-petitions in Ukraine, the Slovak Republic, Moldova and Montenegro, so that these governments can respond more quickly and effectively to citizens’ proposals.
  • Croatia is undertaking a new system of participatory drafting and monitoring of state and local budgets,
  • And Romania is creating a new online government portal providing free on-line access to national legislation.

Those are just some examples from the more than 40 OGP Action Plans that were presented and discussed at the summit in Brasilia. And many more of them propose actions to make parliaments more open, transparent, accountable, and effective.

Through this week’s conference and through OGP, we are reaffirming the truth that information is power, and that new forms of communication can redefine the relationship between government and the governed. Technology is revolutionizing the way citizens interact with their government. And as a result, governments are beginning to respond to calls for change and innovation, some for the very first time.

The United States looks to OGP as vehicle to help improve that relationship around the world, and we look forward to working with this community gathered here tonight, as we continue on our path of collaboration and progress.

Thank you for all that you do.