In previous blog posts, Public Knowledge generally described the stakeholder events that occurred this past weekend at the TPP negotiations in Dallas, to give readers a sense of the structure that public interest groups work within during negotiations. This post will be dedicated to the actual substance of the conversations we had with the USTR during those events.
Stakeholder Engagement: A Huge Disappointment
While we thought the general structure of the stakeholder tabling event has its advantages and disadvantages, the substance of the conversations we had with USTR representatives during that event made us seriously concerned that the USTR cannot be prevailed upon to represent the public without complete transparency.
Although the stakeholder tabling event was billed as an opportunity for negotiators to engage stakeholders, the negotiators that attended were, not surprisingly, unwilling to reveal any information about their substantive positions or the progress of negotiations. Conversations about the substance of the TPP only went one way: stakeholders could express their views to negotiators, but negotiators never made any responses that went beyond thanking the stakeholder and promising to think about the issue further.
The USTR justifies this one-way pattern of communication—and the USTR’s opposition to transparency in general—by asserting that, as public servants, they can be trusted to listen to and act on all public input without any sort of public accountability.
But based on Public Knowledge’s conversations with USTR representatives on Saturday, we simply cannot continue to trust that the USTR is actually listening to public input.
For example, when one USTR staffer told Public Knowledge that public interest groups do not need to see draft texts or negotiating positions, I responded that Public Knowledge uses that information to analyze particular provisions and evaluate their impact on the public. The USTR’s response: “That’s not your job! That’s his job!” (Pointing to the US intellectual property negotiator next to him.)
The IP negotiator tried to run damage control by praising Public Knowledge’s work and noting how useful our comparison of the TPP and US law is. A comparison, by the way, that Public Knowledge could never have written had the draft text never been leaked in February 2011. More fundamentally, how can we be expected to believe that the public’s input and analyses are actually being considered by the government and represented in US proposals when our government representatives specifically tell us they don’t care what we think?
If the USTR takes the position that the public has no business analyzing how TPP proposals will impact the public, it follows that they think the Saturday stakeholder was absolutely meaningless. Maybe it was just designed to make us feel like our voices were heard—an empty gesture to get the public off of their backs. The structure of Saturday’s stakeholder event can only work if the negotiators are actually giving meaningful consideration to stakeholders’ input.
Remedy: Transparency. Now.
The USTR’s apparent contempt for public interest groups is obviously very disappointing, particularly since it goes against the Obama administration’s entire philosophy to increase transparency in government. The President has specifically directed executive agencies (including the USTR) to become more transparent and to help the public “participate in policymaking.”
The views we heard from the USTR staff on Saturday are the exact opposite of what the President has ordered executive agencies to do. The USTR has gone rogue. Why is the White House letting one of its agencies blatantly flout its policies when it’s negotiating one of the largest, most important trade agreements the nation has ever seen?
The only way to fix this mess is for the USTR to become completely transparent. Now that the USTR has made it clear that they think public interest groups have no place speaking out about the public’s interest in the TPP, we must stop trusting that the USTR is giving appropriate consideration to our arguments. We need proof, and that proof has to come in the form of revealing what the USTR is actually proposing to the other TPP countries.
After all, how can the public be expected to trust that the USTR is representing their perspective when the USTR makes perfectly clear that they are not interested in learning about the public’s perspective?