Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Transparency in government

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At last. From the Center for American Progress in an email:

During his campaign, Barack Obama spoke often of the need for open and accountable government. "Too often the American people don’t know who Washington is working for, and when they find out, they don’t like what they hear," he said in Sept. 2007. Obama has echoed what advocates of open government had long called for: "[S]hining a bright light on how Washington works." Yesterday, President Obama took the first step towards fulfilling those campaign promises by issuing a series of executive orders and memorandums that "aimed at greater government openness and accountability." Principally, the directives restore the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and reverse rules enacted by President Bush that gave the White House unprecedented authority to withhold presidential records. Further, the President implemented strict rules governing the employment of lobbyists in his administration. By extending his transition’s spirit of openness, Obama is building the infrastructure for an open and accountable administration. Still, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted last night on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, Obama has "a lot of turning back to do" with regard to Bush’s era of secrecy and that progressives must "trust, but verify" that Obama’s stated transparency goals are met.

AN ERA OF SECRECY: When Bush left office on Tuesday, he completed what is widely viewed as the most secretive administration in history. Evidence of this secrecy is made blatantly obvious by the fact that, under Bush, the number of new documents per year deemed to be state secrets increased by 75 percent. Less obvious, but perhaps more damaging was the administration’s restriction of unclassified information. As he entered office in 2001, Bush directed his Attorney General, John Ashcroft, to issue new guidelines governing FOIA disclosures. Ashcroft’s guidelines "encouraged federal agencies to reject requests for documents if there was any legal basis to do so." As a result of that directive, the government’s FOIA compliance rate deteriorated. By 2006, two in five FOIA requests were left unprocessed, the number of exceptions cited to justify withholding information increased 83 percent, and the Justice Department’s grant rate fell 70 percent. As the Project on Government Secrecy’s Steven Aftergood wrote for Slate in 2005, "Information is the oxygen of democracy. Day by day, the Bush administration is cutting off the supply." Under the new standard, Obama is urging executive agencies to err on the side of openness. Additionally, Obama’s directives give "ex-presidents less leeway to withhold records" under the Presidential Records Act.

TRANSITIONING WITH TRANSPARENCY: Immediately following his election, Obama rejected the secrecy of the Bush era and attempted to make his transition a model of open governance. The transition team opened the "Citizen’s Briefing Book," which aimed to create a "virtual white paper, authored by engaged citizens, to pitch ideas to the incoming administration." Similarly, when the transition solicited input from outside interest groups, materials from the meetings were posted to the transition team’s website. In a memo to staffers, transition co-chair John Podesta wrote, "Every day we meet with organizations who present ideas for the transition and the administration, both orally and in writing. We want to ensure we give the American people a ‘seat at the table‘ and that we receive the benefit of their feedback." Once the materials were published, the public could provide feedback through the website. The transition website also featured an "Open for Questions" section that allowed the public to submit questions directly to the new administration. The questions were made public and readers were able to "vote up" the questions that they believed needed to be answered first. At the end of the voting round, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs posted a YouTube video in response to a handful of the most popular questions. By bringing the presidential transition into the 21st century, the Obama team demonstrated that open and accountable governance is both possible and practical.

THE INFRASTRUCTURE OF OPEN GOVERNMENT: At noon on Jan. 20, a new White House website launched. The site includes space for a White House blog, Obama’s weekly video address, the White House pool reports, and a link to the White House Twitter feed. With this site and yesterday’s directives from Obama, the White House is building the infrastructure it needs to deliver on its promises of transparent and accountable governance. But the Obama administration is not yet making the best use of the existing infrastructure. For example, the White House blog does not allow for public comments. Instead, the Office of Public Liaison offers only a web form where the public an submit comments to the administration. And as the Sunlight Foundation noted, the executive orders issued by Obama yesterday — despite being released to news organizations almost immediately — were not posted to the website until late last night, and the blog contains no mention of issuing them. TechPresident recently noted that the laws governing presidential record-keeping might hobble promises of open governance by slowing, or halting entirely, the adoption of new technologies. While such concerns do highlight the need to update the Presidential Records Act, the Obama team demonstrated during the transition that open government is attainable, and they can do so again in the White House.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2009 at 9:44 am

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