Assessing Transparency in the Obama Administration

By Elizabeth

As a candidate and first term president, Barack Obama promised to make transparency one of the “touchstones of this presidency.”  He pledged to make bills available online for five days before he signed them. He committed to protecting the openness of the Internet by supporting net neutrality. He assured that he would go over earmarks line by line to make sure money was spent wisely and called for reform.  On his first day in office, the President clearly signaled that open government would be a hallmark of his presidency, issuing a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and a Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, which ordered federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government” and “act promptly” to make information public.

Despite progress in some areas, the Obama Administration has demonstrated that ensuring transparency requires a significant investment of energy and resources and the ability to shift a government culture that often heavily relies on secrecy.   While significant progress has been made to improve FOIA administration, strengthen protections for whistleblowers and modernize records management, there is a long way to go before this administration can be made the gold standard of government openness.

On Monday, the Advisory Committee on Transparency (ACT)* hosted a public event on Capitol Hill to examine the efforts of the Obama Administration, titled “Transparency and the Obama Presidency: Looking Back and Looking Forward”. Four panelists were invited to rate the president on the culture of openness and transparency in his White House, including Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW); Hudson Hollister, Executive Director for the Data Transparency Coalition; Josh Gerstein, White House Reporter at POLITICO; and Daniel Schuman, Policy Counsel at the Sunlight Foundation and Director of ACT, who moderated the panel. Together they painted a murky picture of progress tinged by disappointment.

Panelists pointed to a few well intended yet poorly executed attempts at greater transparency, including the ban on hiring individuals from agencies that they have lobbied within the past two years. As Weismann pointed out, often the individuals who are most committed to improving agency operations like public interest lobbyists are precluded, while individuals who are not registered lobbyists but are indeed paid for the work can easily access the revolving door. Another point of contention was access to government data. While more data is being published in a usable format, often the most important and useful data is not. Panelists also lamented the 2010 departure of Norm Eisen, known as the White House “ethics czar,” who had the ear of the president and displayed an unfailing commitment to improving open government policies. Gerstein described a “feedback loop” under Eisen in which the White House could easily be reached with complaints about what wasn’t working, but said the loop had since stalled or broken.

One strong beacon of hope exists in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), in large part thanks to important steps taken by Archivist David Ferriero to address the key issues in electronic records management. In November 2011, President Obama tasked NARA with creating a new Records Management Directive to establish a robust 21st century framework for managing Federal records, calling proper records management “ the backbone of open Government.” Released on August 24, the new Directive is an important step forward to ensure preservation and permanent public access to federal agency records in electronic formats.  The Directive requires agencies to transition to electronic recordkeeping “to ensure transparency, efficiency and accountability,” a goal which promotes the open government commitments in President Obama’s Open Government Directive. Agencies are required to move to electronic recordkeeping of all permanent electronic records by 2019 and transition to electronic recordkeeping of email by 2016. In addition, the Archivist convened the first meeting of Senior Agency Officials last week to focus on role they play in supporting individual records management programs in Federal agencies.

Despite a bumpy road and a loss of momentum with this Administration, there is little comparison between this president and his predecessor. While the Bush White House was marked by a shroud of extreme secrecy, President Obama has made significant strides to be more transparent. Still, there is more that the White House could be doing. AALL looks forward to continuing to work with the administration to meet the president’s first-term commitment to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”

*Disclosure: AALL’s Director of Government Relations Emily Feltren serves on the Committee

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