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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Launch of the Open Government Partnership

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 

Jorge Hage Sobrinho, Minister of State, Office of the Comptroller General of Brazil; Rakesh Rajani, Head of TWAWEZA
New York, NY
September 20, 2011

11:30 A.M., EDT


MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for coming to the Foreign Press Center today, where we will have a briefing about the launch of the Open Government Partnership. With us, we have three distinguished speakers. We have the Under Secretary of State for the United States for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero. We have the Brazilian Minister of State and Head of the Comptroller General’s Office Minister Hage. And we have Rakesh Rajani, who is the head of Twaweza –

MR. RAJANI: Twaweza.

MODERATOR: Twaweza – thank you – which is, in Swahili, “We can make it happen.” The three of them have a great amount of experience in their own areas working on partnerships, and will be here to talk about the launch of the Open Government Partnership later today that will be hosted by President Obama and President Rousseff of Brazil.

So without further ado, Under Secretary Otero.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Thank you. Good morning – or good afternoon at this point. President Obama and President Dilma Rousseff will be launching the Open Government Partnership this afternoon. This partnership originates from a challenge that President Obama made at the last United Nations General Assembly in which he called for governments to find ways to be more transparent in the way that they operate, to be able to engage their citizens more in the workings of the government, and to be able to be more accountable and to address those issues that have always been difficult ones for governments to address, such as corruption and lack of transparency.

It’s out of this challenge that the Open Government Partnership arises, and it begins with eight countries that come together and form a steering committee. And that committee is co-chaired by the United States and by Brazil, and this is why our two presidents are now launching the event. And this steering committee establishes the core principles for this Open Partnership – Open Government Partnership, and I’ll say them very briefly here.

But the core principles are the concept of transparency. That is, transparency is what really provides the public with information about what a government is doing and how it is doing it. The second principle is engaging civilians, engaging citizens, in the ongoing of the way in which the government is working, asking and finding mechanisms so that citizens can provide their ideas, can provide their expertise, and can also really hold the government accountable in the work that it does. And the third principle really brings these two together, and it’s accountability – the concept that the government has to be able to be responsive for the work that it does to its people.

So this is really what we are trying to do through the Open Government Partnership. The steering committee members decided from the beginning that rather than just – you don’t just want to talk about this because it’s such wonderful ideas to put on the table. But rather, each government would develop a national plan, an action plan, to specifically address one areas in which they would be more transparent or accountable, whether that area was in the delivery of public services or it was in the way in which they’re managing public resources or in the way in which they are making communities safer or in the way in which they are calling for accountability from the corporate sector – very concrete areas in which they could choose to develop ways to become more transparent.

The very unique characteristics of the Open Government Partnership is that it is a partnership with civil society. So the steering committee has eight governments in it, but it also has eight organizations from the civil society. It is very much a concept in which the government has to work side by side with institutions that represent its people in order to be able to carry out this work. So civil society is working directly with us. It is also unique in that it is voluntary. Countries join this if they want to and if they are committed to these principles and if they want to put together an action plan.

And finally, it is flexible. Countries can choose where it is that they want to apply these concepts of transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. So today at the launch, we will have President Obama and President Rousseff, who will be presenting this to 38 additional governments from the eight that founded this. So we will have 44 countries – or 46 countries that have demonstrated their commitment to open government, and they will be the first ones to really engage this in a very concrete way.

Let me just ask the minister to just add a few words, as – with Rakesh and then we can open it up for questions.

MINISTER HAGE: Thank you, Maria. Very, very briefly, very few words because of the delay due to the New York traffic jam that we have to face coming from the Google event called The Power Of Open.

It’s really amazing, the progress we all together made from January when all this started to now. In January, Brazil received the invitation from the White House and United States and Department of State in order to be in the first group of partners together with six other countries, total of eight countries, which were the initial nuclear group that started to discuss how to engage other countries in initiatives, global initiatives, focusing on transparency and openness in creation of more instruments for citizen participation, direct participation, of course, maintaining the principles of our representative democracies, but at the same time, giving a chance to, what I call, practice of a modern, direct democracy. Not the Greek direct democracy utopia of course, but making use of the extraordinary development of technology in our times.

We thought that we should experiment, some source of direct practice of dialogue, directly from people, either people individually considered or organize it in civil society organizations and other kinds of social groups, and private sector also – direct dialogue in order to foster more and more public service which answered to the real demands of the people in order to open government for more and more scrutiny directed from the citizens, in this way preventing corruption, because as we always remember, there is nothing like the sunlight as a powerful disinfectant, as was put by an American judge some time ago.

We believe in transparency. We believe in social participation. We have many instruments for this already in Brazil, and we are committed to advance more and more. And that’s the idea. Every country that was participating in the first group by invitation, there was no other way to get the thing started, but then we built some criteria in order to reach out and invite other countries. We had in July, we had in Washington, D.C., a second important meeting, where about 50 countries came in order to hear what was it about, and now, as Maria said, we have 46 countries already engaged – the eight initial countries and plus new 38 countries. Today, the original eight countries are going to sign the declaration and present their action plans for the first year.

The second meeting of this size and importance of this level, will happen in Brazil, in March of 2012, when the new 38 or more countries, because they can engage at any moment – new countries can engage at any moment – we will sign the declaration and present their commitments in Brazil in March of 2012.

And yesterday we had another important meeting of the steering committee, where each country from the eight initial countries presented their own experiences in how to build this plan with participation and openness. What I mean is, if we’re talking about openness and participation, we have to do it ourselves from the beginning in the construction of the commitment. So the commitment is not something that the government constructs isolated – in an isolated way. We discuss it with many Brazilians, NGOs, and we discuss it within the executive branch with different ministries and outside the executive branch with other public bodies.

We had a discussion in our committee in the house of representatives, for example. We had a discussion in our council of transparency, where we have 10 public institutions and 10 civil society organizations so that the elaboration of the commitments, in itself, is made in a participative way. And these (inaudible) are going to be shown to the newcomers, to the new countries, so that we all make this big endeavor successfully, as we expect.

Thank you very much.

MR. RAJANI: Thank you.

This is a very different initiative. It’s not business as usual. It’s quite rare to have a high-level initiative of this sort, which is going to be launched by the presidents of these two countries, to involve civil society in its governance structure. The fact that this does so in equal numbers, I think, signals that it’s something different. The name of the initiative is an Open Government Partnership. The Partnership goes across many different lines, but I think, most importantly, it’s a partnership between governments and their people. This is about, at the time when there is a lot of, perhaps, cynicism about governments, a lot of turmoil in the world, this is a partnership that seeks to restore trust and legitimacy between the governed and governors, between people and their own governments.

I think there are some amazing things happening in the world – the Arab Spring happened right in the middle of us setting this initiative off. And in many ways, it embodies some of the key principles about people driven by a deep passion and desire for dignity and human rights, using technology, being courageous, coming together to make things happen.

This initiative, in my view, is really about putting wind behind the sails of these courageous people so that they can create societies and governments in which really the people come first, where the governments are for the people and by the people.

Concretely, what the initiative that I think seeks to do at the country level, I’ll just give you a couple of examples of what has already happened, and this is exactly the sort of thing that we want to promote. For instance, in Mexico, a civil society group called Fundar uncovered the fact that a lot of money meant for women’s health was not reaching the clinics, and the clinics were not open for the hours they were supposed to be open, or that the services that were supposed to be free for poor women were not, in fact, free. When this information was collected rigorously and put in the public domain and shared with government, it gave ammunition to the ministry of health to get their act together, to put the reforms in place, and to negotiate with parliament to get sufficient resources.

Across East Africa, as in much of the rest of the world, there is billions of dollars are spent on education. But as exciting as that is, our problem is that many children are not learning. There are citizens’ efforts all over the world that are uncovering what is actually happening, trying to find out what children are learning, putting that evidence on the table so that governments are both pressured and supported to get their acts together.

The promise of the partnership comes – is going to be realized, I think, when governments and civil society join together at times to things jointly, because both sides have information that the other sides needs, and at times to actually hold each other accountable. Civil society, we see it as our role as both cooperating, collaborating with governments, as well as keeping our governments on our toes. And I think this capitalizes that with a great speed and energy so that, at the end of the day, the citizens of this world, of our countries, feel that they have a greater say and a greater control for the destinies that they live. Thank you.

MODERATOR: I know we have just a couple minutes for any questions you might have.

QUESTION: I would like to know what is the role of your (inaudible) partnership.

MR. RAJANI: There are nine civil society members of the steering committee. We don’t formally represent any constituency, but we were – we came together. We founded the initiative, if you want to call it that, based on our commitment and track record in this area. So our job is to help shape the partnership, to liaise with our constituencies, to help keep it on its toes, to make sure it is informed by best practice, to stretch as far as we can.

QUESTION: What is the organization in Brazil?

MR. RAJANI: I’m not from Brazil. I’m from East Africa.

QUESTION: Yes. But do you know which one? You mentioned there are nine.

QUESTION: From Brazil?

MR. RAJANI: From Brazil is INESC.

QUESTION: I also have a question for you. Do you see that this sort of initiative sort of – how does it come in this context? We see also in India, for example, the movement against corruption, and you mentioned the Arab Spring. So is there a greater demand in the world for fighting corruption and for openness in government?

MR. RAJANI: Absolutely. I mean, I think all of the Arab Spring, the anticorruption movements with Anna Hazare, prior to that the right to information in India. In East Africa, it doesn’t quite make the headline news, but there’s powerful stuff happening, because at the end of the day, citizens are – the world is changing. Citizens are no longer willing to stay quiet, to be patient, to be humiliated, to be oppressed. They want to make sure that dignity comes first. I think if you look at the etiology of the Arab Spring, it started with people who are humiliated, and people finally saying no, we are not going to be humiliated anymore. And that’s a movement that’s happening all over the world. In my view, this initiative tries to get behind those forces, try to support them, put wind behind their sales.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Cindy Waite with TV Asahi. And a question for you, Under Secretary Otero, I noticed that Japan is not on this list. Can you talk a little bit about what the requirements are and if they – if Japan didn’t meet the requirements or what may be some of the reasons would be for not joining if they did?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: The requirements were such that a number of countries were named as possibly being able to participate. In fact, when the original criteria was developed, about 84 countries met the criteria. Those 84 countries were invited to a meeting in Washington in July to see if they wanted to participate in this effort. And of those countries, about 60 decided to come and to learn more about this and to decide whether they wanted to participate. And what we have today are the additional 38 countries that have decided to participate, because participating means committing yourself to putting together an action plan and to doing this in a way that will commit the time of your government that will put you in a situation of having consultations with civil society as you’re writing your action plan, and being willing to develop that commitment.

And as I said earlier, this is voluntary, and countries will come to the table when they are ready. And so that part of it, we are hoping at some point we will have every country on the planet in this effort. But countries, as they see their possibility of working in this and their commitment to do this work, come to the table.

MODERATOR: We have time for one last question.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. We see President Dilma Rousseff of making a strong effort to fight corruption in Brazil, and I would like to know if there is any connection between this initiative and the changes that are happening in her government right now, and which was the area that Brazil chose to be more accountable and transparent, specifically.

MINISTER HAGE: There’s a link between this and any recent problems that have happened in Brazil. There’s initiative – Brazil has been consulted, invited in November of 2010, and then I consulted President Dilma because of the change of government whether she wanted us to give the preliminary answer in terms of participation. At that moment, I did not even know whether I would be in the ministry or not because we were changing the government. But she immediately authorized it to give a green light that Brazil in her government would be willing to participate, yes, and then in January started the discussions here in Washington. So it was – has nothing to do with any kind of problem.

The second question: What was the area that Brazil emphasized more? Well, we tried to draw a plan that involves all the areas. Of course, we are better ahead in the area of what we call active transparency or spontaneous transparency. Our transparency portal, which gives all the information about public expenditures, federal public expenditures on a daily basis, which means that any person in the world can consult in our site all the federal expenses made until last night. In our databases, we charge the portal during the night. This is our area where we are more advanced. Again, we call it spontaneous transparency.

There is another kind of transparency, transparency by demand, where the citizen can choose and ask for access to one specific document. In this area, Brazil is still behind because we do not have the law that we want to have describing all the procedures and all the deadlines that a public servant has in order to give the right answer to any demand. This is a project, as you know, that is in Congress since two years ago, was already approved by the House of Representatives and it’s dependent only in the Senate decision. We have good reasons to hope that it’s going to be approved within this year, before the end of the year. But this is the only piece of legislation that we are doing yet.

In other areas, in the areas, for example, of disclosure of assets of high officials, elected officials, we already have this in Brazil. In the area of citizen participation, I think we are one of the countries that have more instruments of this. We have a popular initiative for bills in the Congress. We have tremendous amount of councils with citizen participation, since the municipal level in the area of health, education, et cetera, up to the national area. We have councils in education, in social assistance, in health, in everything, and we are trying to improve the work of those councils because they need training, they need more independence in some regions, and we have been working on this.

We are, in this moment, running what we call the National Conferences in Transparency and Social Participation. This conference has started already at the municipal level. It’s going to happen in the whole country, and then in 26 states level, and then coming to the national conference in the beginning of next year. So in the area of social participation, I think Brazil is in one very, very good position, is one of the champions on this area.

And in the area of using technology in order to improve public services also, we included in our plan some initiatives of the ministry of planning, which is working in what we call National Plan for Open Data – the concept of open data, to publicize data in a way that the citizen or the organization can use it to analyze to make the kind of use that they want, download the data and work on this, and not only receiving the way that the government wants to give.

And we also put in the plan a project of the minister of education involving purchases, centralized purchases of goods in the area of education for all three levels of government. And this, all those sorts of things are included in our plan.

MODERATOR: Unfortunately, we’re out of time. I’m sorry. But thank you very much. And the last thing we want to point out is that as you see on the screens to our side, the Open Government Partnership website, which is, and there’s an example of the home page right now on screen right. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: What about today?

MODERATOR: And you can watch the event, the launch itself this afternoon, livestreamed on this website. Thank you.

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