Two years ago, the United States joined seven other nations to create the Open Government Partnership based on a simple idea: that governments could become better, more effective, and more efficient if citizens played a bigger role in the decision making process.
That isn’t a hard concept to grasp in the United States – it’s part of our DNA. The night before Justice Elena Kagan swore me in as Secretary of State, I went home to Massachusetts to talk with many of the people -- citizens, environmentalists, veterans, business leaders, union organizers, and on and on -- who had been at the heart of what I’d tried to do in public life. We gathered at Faneuil Hall, a place that has always been at the forefront of debate in Massachusetts and in our country – the place where local lore tells us the “town hall meeting” was practically invented. It’s the place where Massachusetts defined human rights by adopting our own Bill of Rights, where abolitionists took a stand against slavery, for women’s suffrage, and for civil rights for all Americans. When someone asks me what fancy words like “civil society” or the Open Government Partnership are all about, I think of that place and that night. It’s simply the practice of helping to make sure more citizen voices are heard and the belief that doing that is a very good thing for every government.
A strong civil society is the lifeblood of every successful democracy. It’s the glue that holds entire countries together through difficult periods. That’s why everywhere I travel as Secretary of State -- especially when I visit countries that are in the midst of political transitions -- I meet with civil society groups.
I also meet with these groups for a very practical reason -- one that Vice President Biden and I often talk about. Civil society is the farm system for the future. I can’t tell you how many civil society members whom I met with as a young Senator who are now the Foreign Ministers I meet with today as Secretary of State.
Good statecraft remembers that the pendulum of history is always moving. Few leaders understand this as instinctively as President Obama, who started out, after all, as a community organizer, bringing people together from outside the government to get the attention of those who called the shots. This Administration understands that we strengthen our foreign policy when we invest in relationships -- not just with those who are in charge but with those who are pushing for change.
That’s why this Open Government Partnership is so important -- and it’s encouraging that it has grown from eight founding countries to more than 60, all of which have embraced its key principles. This week more than 1,000 delegates from more than 60 countries -- including representatives from civil society organizations, businesses and governments -- are together in London to share experiences from their respective countries and provide real examples of how openness can improve public services, drive economic growth, reduce poverty and corruption, and restore public faith in government. I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion with my colleague Foreign Secretary Hague and two members of civil society, Aruna Roy and Mo Ibrahim, where we discussed these issues and ways we can transform the relationship between government and civil society.
As we mark the initiative’s two-year anniversary, participating countries are taking steps to fully implement the commitments they have made through National Action Plans. Here in the United States, we are working to make government more open and responsive than ever before. For example, we’re making it easier for citizens to access to government records. We’re also increasing transparency around government spending. And today, the United States partnered with the OGP Summit host country, the United Kingdom, to launch the Global Open Data on Agriculture and Nutrition initiative, a public-private partnership of leading philanthropists, technology innovators, and NGOs, working together on food security and improving nutrition across the globe.
But despite the important progress we’re making, we are also seeing an alarming trend around the globe: New laws in a number of countries are closing civil space, making it difficult or impossible for civil society organizations to operate freely.
That’s why President Obama issued a challenge at the UN General Assembly in September for concerned governments and partners to “Stand with Civil Society.” He called for using the next 12 months to make concrete progress in three areas. First, improving the domestic policy environment for civil society. Second, building a strong coalition of partners -- other governments, multilateral and regional organizations, and civil society itself -- to address government action that tries to restrict civil society. And third, finding new ways to provide technological, financial, and logistical support to civil society organizations around the world.
Like President Obama said at the UN, “As other countries back down, we’ve got to step up -- together.” The launch of the Open Government Partnership two years ago was just the beginning. Now is the time for action, for fulfilling our commitment to open government and creating space for the organizations and individuals who together make up vibrant civil societies. I look forward to the progress we’ll make -- together -- in the coming year and beyond.