Recommendations on how to make the next Summit for Democracy matter

Many thanks to the civil servants who have asked how the next Summit for Democracy should be reshaped and improved, from increasing civil society involvement to event design to increasing the impact of participation. We have appreciated the opportunity to offer feedback in virtual consultations, including today, and are memorializing our suggestions in one document with hopes that it may be useful to both organizers and people outside of the process. We believe the following steps would improve outcomes for the stated goals for the Summit.

First, across multiple consultation sessions we’ve asked for much more press involvement, with ongoing press conferences and a dashboard of progress against commitments. The Summit should be a forcing function for providing answers in both formal press conferences that put world leaders and ministers next to civil society folks, to get two-sided perspectives on whether nations implemented their commitments, alongside citizen-driven questions.

There should be plenary panels with independent journalists where the questions are proposed and driven by public voting ahead of time, using modern ideation platforms. Summit organizers should commit to posing the top questions and petitions to world leaders, with anti-corruption experts present to provide honest feedback after. A publicly stated expectation that hard public questions will be asked prior to the Summit and answered at it will help make the “main event” more meaningful – and it would drive public awareness and civic participation, should global media outlets and tech companies host be involved in hosting those dialogues.

It would also be useful to have plenary discussion of how democratic nations have held corrupt leaders and politicians accountable after abuses of power, drawing from the experience of polities around the world. For instance, the question of how and or even whether political leaders are held accountable for corruption will be pertinent in the US next year. It would be a useful contribution if former U.S. Attorney Generals discussed what has happens after attempted coups in other democracies. We recognize such a dialogue may be uncomfortable to contemplate, but it would make this event more “real” and draw international attention. Connecting corruption to authoritarianism with honest public debate should be a critical deliverable for the Summit, with ongoing activities.

Transparency and accountability – the pillars of open government – are the inverse of corruption. We should be hearing more about how State and USAID are thinking about integrating reviving and renewing their own open government plans and practices as the U.S. government pursues and implements a new National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership, with an explicit recognition that public trust in government institutions continues to be at historic lows. Ending the imposition of “background” conditions with press talking with “senior administration officials” would be a useful step relevant to those journalists that adds transparency and accountability to an opaque dynamic that undermines trust.

Millions of people might watch a global event where civil society leaders and world leaders talk about when and how corrupt actors are held accountable, both over history and in the present. That would mean not just ministers listing what conditions are necessary for transparency to lead to accountability, but how governments are implementing specific steps and strategies, with documented outcomes validated by independent researchers and evidence. For instance, could independent journalists hold US officials present accountable for the impact and outcomes from the U.S. national strategy on anti-corruption, and for making concrete commitments to address what’s failed?

To have a positive impact on democracy itself, there must also be much more civil society involvement, not just ministers, NGO leaders, and foreign press talking to one another. We would love to hear from people attesting to the impact of corruption on their city, state, nation, business, university, media outlet, etc, and then officials who talk about what they’ve done to curb entrusted power for private gain. In a perfect world, we might get to hear the Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, President, and Chief Justice all asked why it’s important for presidents, governors, judges, and Members of Congress to disclose their tax returns. We’d like to hear why they do or do not divest from conflicts of interest — like stocks or businesses – that would create the appearance (or reality) of corruption in their executive, regulatory, legislative, or judicial actions, ending insider trading or the monetization of personal businesses in office. The fact that it’s almost unimaginable that the next Speaker of the House would be asked at the next Summit if every presidential candidate should have to disclose taxes by law to ensure that foreign or domestic emoluments cannot influence public policy should be an alarming void – but maybe should be discussed openly, with respect to the state of U.S. democracy. It would similarly be useful to hear from the last Speaker why a corrupt president wasn’t held accountable by the last Congress for taking emoluments, too.

The next Summit should also feature accountability for the Summit process itself and all nations that made commitments. Every participant should be asked to post a progress report by the end of 2022, hold a press conference on it, and then identify specific anti-corruption actions and their impact. We need the senior officials who are responsible for opacity and who are saying “no” to be open to events at which ministers might be embarrassed for inaction or even blockage of reforms and commitments.

All participants inside and outside of governments should be looking at what we’ve learned from the past decade of the Open Government Partnership, including how to make these kinds of global summits matter for building back democracy. If the Summit for Democracy process is going to lead to positive outcomes, those lessons all need to be applied, so this new weak multi-stakeholder initiative stops undermining OGP and other efforts by dissipating limited civil society and government capacity. Civil society groups all been asking governments to “move from words to action” in OGP for many years, and it’s striking the extent to which the Summit process feels like a wan version of OGP in 2011 all over again.

One of the most effective ways for the US government to help with anti-corruption efforts will be to implement the 2020 law banning anonymous shell companies in the USA, as that will have an impact on corrupt actors globally. We need to see the Department of the Treasury and White House to devote significant resources to public engagement for a proposed rule making process around beneficial ownership transparent. That should be a grand national commitment for both OGP and for the Summit, uniting the efforts, with ongoing narration of disclosures and efforts to make that data as open as possible beginning in January 2023.

Both the Open Government Partnership and the Summit for Democracy will only be effective if the U.S. government leads internationally by example. Agencies must become much more open and accountable for our own work in this area, which begins with hosting monthly press conferences on anti-corruption efforts and showing agency work in frequently asked questions (FAQs) posted to revived pages. Involving Congress and the courts would also be helpful, since an independent judiciary and healthy legislative branch are critical for upholding democratic reforms and codifying needed changes. Everyone can see that our Congress failed to hold a President impeached for corruption and then fomenting an insurrection as part of a seditious conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government accountable. The U.S. government and civil society should talk about that on stage, as a way of joining a global conversation with other democracies, not act as if it didn’t happen.

In late November 2022, almost no one is aware of a second summit or what’s planned outside of these consultations because the President isn’t talking about it. That’s also true of the Open Government Partnership. These voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives only work with personal involvement by the leaders: they have to talk about them publicly, with the press, and with other nations, spend political capital to increase involvement, follow up on commitments, and then be willing to be held accountable on stage themselves. If that doesn’t change, then everyone should reset their expectations accordingly.

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