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The Fifth U.S. Open Government National Action Plan and the Fight for More Transparency

By Zach Brown

Advocating for more transparency directly with government officials at the federal level, Public Citizen recently participated in the creation of the Fifth U.S Open Government National Action Plan. As a key founding member of the Open Government Partnership, the US government has participated in a multinational initiative to promote government transparency and citizen empowerment. Every two years, participating countries create a National Action Plan, cooperating with members of civil society to create a set of federal commitments the government will make to improve on government accountability and openness.  By taking part in a series of public forums and discussions on the various ways in which the government can become more transparent and accountable to the American people, Public Citizen had a direct role in molding the final product on behalf of our organization’s more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country.  

The recently released National Action Plan revolves around 5 key themes: improving the Access to government data, research and information, increasing the civic space to engage the public, transforming the government service delivery Process, countering corruption and ensuring more government integrity, and ensuring equal justice under the law.  

And just in case you haven’t yet had a chance to read it, below is a summary and a few key takeaways from the U.S. current National Action Plan (NAP) on each of these themes: 

Improving Access to Government Data  

  • A central component of this theme is expanding amount of data that the federal government shares with the public. In the NAP, the government officially committed to evaluating the data practices across all federal agencies and implementing measures to streamline the data provision process.  
  • Additionally, the federal government has specifically committed to improving the public’s online access to both the National Archives and Confidential Federal Data. By eliminating the existing barriers to this data, the American people can be more effectively served by their government. 

Improving the Civic Space to Engage the Public  

  • Another key element of the NAP revolves around increasing public participation in the decision-making processes of the federal government, especially by members of historically underserved communities. Central to this effort is modernizing the regulatory review process, which includes improving public engagement in rulemaking. 
  • For example, the federal government is encouraging agencies to engage the public in rulemaking by bolstering community involvement when creating their annual regulatory agendas. The government acknowledges that agencies do not always hear the voices of those who may be impacted by proposed rulemakings, primarily members of historically underserved communities, and seeks to change this. The federal government “commits to supporting greater community engagement in the rulemaking process, including through its efforts to modernize the regulatory review process, through tools, guidance, and other resources.” 

Transform Government Service Delivery 

  • A fully open government should not only be transparent and accessible, but also as efficient as possible in the provision of its services. In striving towards this goal, President Biden and the federal government has committed to reduce the burdens faced by the public in accessing government services by calling on feral agencies to comprehensively review their procedures.  
  • Additionally, federal agencies will take on an increased role in reporting their customer service statistics to the public, allowing themselves to be held accountable for the success of their initiatives to improve government service delivery. 

Countering Corruption  

  • Efforts to counter corruption are central to the National Action Plan’s goal of increasing transparency and the public trust in our government. In doing so, the NAP supports increased whistleblower protections, requiring government officials to take on stringent ethics requirements, and bolstering the oversight of federal spending.   
  • Additionally, reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) get a nod, with the federal government committing to issue a FOIA self-assessment toolkit to all federal agencies and pushing agencies to reflect on how disclosures can be improved upon. The federal government has also committed to leading a FOIA Officer Council Working group to develop FOIA business standards to improve upon accountability and transparency. 

Ensuring Equal Justice Under the Law  

  • The last theme covered in this recent NAP is the imperative that our nation’s criminal justice system be reformed into a more equitable institution in order to increase trust and government accountability. By committing to tackle inequity in our justice system, the National Action Plan takes on new initiatives to address unjustly long sentences, bolster the access to legal services for low-income individuals, and expand the social and economic support for citizens re-entering society after incarceration.  
  • Additionally, the National Action Plan makes special note about the importance of data access with the goal of increasing equity. In doing so, the Attorney General has been directed to craft the National Law Enforcement Accountability Database, serving as a central hub for official records documenting law enforcement misconduct across all federal law enforcement agencies. 

Room for Improvement  

While the National Action Plan makes important commitments in several key areas, the NAP could have benefited from more attention on reforming the Freedom of Information Act. Although FOIA was mentioned briefly in the NAP’s section regarding Countering Corruption, given the importance the Freedom of Information Act has in promoting government transparency, the NAP could have been strengthened by inclusion of bolder suggestions for agencies to improve the public’s access to information via FOIA. For example, by including reforms outlined in the Blueprint for Accountability, a collaborative civil society roadmap for a more open government, to which Public Citizen contributed.  

Cooperative policymaking opportunities like the development of the National Action Plan are meant to advance a more inclusive and responsive government and we at Public Citizen will continue to participate to ensure robust implementation of the NAP while stressing the importance of a bolder vision from the government in future iterations.   

After all, government secrets don’t breed trust.