Tomorrow morning representatives from more than 55 national governments meet in Washington DC to kick off what might be a multilateral, 21st century reboot of good old democracy-building, a term tainted by eight years of George W. Bush. Activists and international media soon associated “democracy promotion” with dropping bombs, shuttling suspects to covert CIA prisons, and selectively fostering regime change when it benefits US economic interests. Bush’s second inaugural address laid out his “ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” But not really. While soldiers were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration kept cozy relationships with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Obama entered the White House all too willing to leave behind the democracy-building rhetoric. In early 2009 Peter Baker wrote:

Idealists, for lack of a better word, agree that democracy-building should be a core American value but pursued with more modesty, less volume and better understanding of the societies in question … The essential tension for the Obama team is whether to let Bush’s strong association discredit the very idea of spreading democracy.

With only 18 months left in the term, the Obama White House and the State Department seem to have finally crafted a frame through which to pursue a softer, more humble form of democracy-building: open government. Once a grassroots movement that emerged out of meetings between activists and geeks, open government is now being adopted by some of the world’s biggest NGOs and transformed into a tool of diplomacy.

Why this might be good news

Nearly all municipal governments in Argentina use the same accounting software, which includes a handy feature to export the latest government purchases to the municipal website. In theory, citizens could see in real time how their local government spends taxpayer money and which government service providers receive the largest contracts. In practice, any concerned citizen would need to perform a separate search on the website for each government payment, then copy and paste the information into a spreadsheet, and finally analyze it with filters and graphs. The obstacle to greater transparency wasn’t a lack of information, but rather the burden of time. Fortunately a young programmer from Bahía Blanca in southern Argentina used free, open source tools to automate this process and share real-time visualizations of the city’s spending patterns at an independent website called Gasto Público Bahiense, or “Bahia Blanca’s Public Spending.” Citizens were able to see the relationships between the various city agencies and the companies that benefited from service contracts. For the first time residents were able to compare — in real time — the percentage of public spending that went to education, infrastructure, public transportation, etc.

Last week the website stopped working. The city government re-designed their own website and implemented a “captcha” restriction to enter the transparency section. Humans can still access the same information as before, but computer scripts are now prevented from collecting and analyzing the data, a major step backward for open government in Argentina.

Argentine civic hackers were already aware that their platforms depended on the whims of government agencies. Last month I solicited the opinions of several leading Argentine programmers about a workshop on the use of technology in budget transparency. They had contemplated rolling out versions of Gasto Público Bahiense for each of Argentina’s municipal governments, but with extraordinary foresight, they decided that the platform was too dependent on factors they could not control. Instead their plan is to work with the city governments to convince them of the virtues and advantages of open government and budget transparency.

Noam Hoffstater and Alon Padon, two transparency activists in Tel Aviv, would likely support their strategy. In 2009 they recruited volunteers who spent months converting the Tel Aviv city budget from its public PDF format to Excel so that they could analyze and visualize it online. The sad irony is that the city government creates the budget using Excel, but then exports it to PDF so that citizens have more difficulty analyzing spending patterns. The following year Hoffstater and Padon decided that it was a waste of time to develop custom software that automates the process of converting the budget from PDF to Excel. Instead they sued the city, demanding that it publish the budget in a more accessible format. A day before the Tel Aviv District Court was scheduled to hear the case, the city announced that it would publish the 2011 budget in an open format. A few months later and the Israeli federal government also decided to publish its annual budget in an open format online.

I offer these two anecdotes as illustrations of why the grassroots, civic hacker movement must work with government if it wants to make sustainable progress toward greater civic participation and political accountability. In some cases we must offer carrots — in the form of incentives to government officials that provide access to public information — while in other cases we must use sticks — such as lawsuits and critical media coverage.

What to expect from the Open Government Partnership

The International Open Government Partnership (OGP) has been in the works for a long time now, but for a movement focused on openness, it has hardly been transparent in its conception. My impression is that it began as the US-India Partnership on Open Government, which was announced by Samantha Power in November 2010. According to the original press release, the initiative offered “a commitment to work together to advance open government globally.” Something must have gone wrong as the original initiative didn’t advance anything anywhere. A few months later a new international steering committee of eight governments was formed, with India notably absent from the list. Eventually it was announced that Brazil and the United States would co-chair the International Steering Committee, and that the initiative would officially launch at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in early September 2011.

What can we expect from the OGP? According to the press release, it’s a “multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

The PR-talk is promising, but there are plenty of reasons to not get one’s hopes up just yet. Tomorrow’s meeting will take place at the US Department of State, an institution that has proven itself incompetent at responding to FOIA requests despite the Obama administration’s pledge to improve responsiveness. As Josh Israel reports:

Last October a package of 43 documents was delivered to the Center in response to an April 30, 2007 FOIA — more than three years after the initial submission. By that point, both the ambassador in question (Ambassador to Jamaica Sue McCourt Cobb ) and the president who appointed her had both departed their posts. Just last month, on June 15, a second, smaller package from State arrived at the Center, this one via registered mail, containing a letter referencing another one of Varsalona’s 2007 case filings.

The letter said the State Department was “undertaking a comprehensive effort” to clear its backlog of requests and was thus writing to “inquire whether you are still interested in pursuing this case.”

The article goes on to point out that the State Department is one of the few federal agencies that has yet to respond to Obama’s open government memo, and that the “median response for complex FOIA requests is 228 days.” In other words, this is not an institution that is accustomed to transparency and openness. (Let’s not even bring up its reaction to Wikileaks.) But it’s not just the State Department; Vivek Wadhwa of the Washington Post recently declared “the death of open government” in the United States following the resignation of the country’s Chief Information Officer and the slashed budget of Data.gov. The United States is hardly in a position to preach to others about the virtues of opening up government.

The same is true of Brazil, the other co-chair of the OGP. As Greg Michener has reported, realpolitik led Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to reverse her support for the expedited passage of a freedom of information law. (Oddly, Toby McIntosh was told that a FOI law was an eligibility criteria for participating countries, which would exclude the co-chair of the entire partnership.)

It is crucial that we judge the Open Government Partnership not by its rhetoric, but by its achievements. Participants of tomorrow’s meeting, which is closed to the press, have been given a 60-page report prepared by 16 organizations that offers general (and at times exceedingly vague) recommendations on achieving greater transparency in particular areas, such as asset disclosures, extractive industries, and procurement. According to the agenda, country delegations meet tomorrow afternoon to “identify concrete steps toward developing and implementing an Action Plan.” That’s right, Action Plan in capital letters. Those countries are then supposed to come back to the UN General Assembly meeting in September with their Action Plan in hand, a clearly outlined list of promises that will lead to greater government openness.

Who will judge the progress made by each country? Sadly, the very same governments themselves. The only mechanism to measure and enforce progress in the OGP is self-assessment, a reflection of the greatest recurring failure of the transparency movement: fake accountability. (Update: I have been told that there will also be an “an independent reporting mechanism.”)

Tomorrow’s meeting should give transparency activists a better idea as to whether the OGP offers a mechanism to put greater international pressure on federal governments — including the United States and Brazil — to become more transparent, or if this is just one more venue for politicians to be politicians. The responsibility is also in our hands. We must use both carrots and sticks to advocate for government openness grounded in reality, not symbolism.