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Eye Opener: A closed open government meeting?

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

Happy Monday! Kudos to the AP's Sharon Theimer for catching news of a workshop on government openness at the Commerce Department on Monday that is closed to the public.

"The event Monday for federal employees is a fitting symbol of President Barack Obama's uneven record so far on the Freedom of Information Act, a big part of keeping his campaign promise to make his administration the most transparent ever," Theimer reports. "As Obama's first year in office ends, the government's actions when the public and press seek information are not yet matching up with the president's words."

More: "Obama has approved startup money for a new office taking part in Monday's closed conference, the Office of Government Information Services. It was created to resolve disputes involving people who ask for records and government agencies. But as evidenced by the open-records event behind closed doors, there is a long way to go."

"The director of the new Office of Government Information Services, Miriam Nisbet, said the event was closed to make sure there would be room for all the government employees attending.

"'I can understand skepticism anytime a meeting for government people is not necessarily open to the public,' Nisbet said. 'However, everything that is discussed there is absolutely available for the public to know about.'"

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

More Obama Nominees Announced: On Friday the president tapped Judith Ann Stewart Stock to serve as the State Department's assistant secretary for the bureau of education and cultural affairs; David L. Strickland to serve as the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; William B. Sansom to serve as a member of the Tennessee Valley Authority's board of directors; Victoria Reggie Kennedy to serve as a member of the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Track all of Obama's nominees with The Post's Head Count.

Cabinet and Staff News: How President Obama and his Cabinet decided on the Afghanistan war surge. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton make the Sunday show rounds. In an interview, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner slams Goldman Sachs. Sen. Max Baucus recommended his girlfriend for Montana's U.S. attorney slot. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will make an announcement of new green technology initiatives Monday at the Commerce Department. Ex-TARP Director, Neel Kashkari: The $700 billion man. A profile of David S. Ferriero, the new archivist of the United States.

Monday's news by agency and topic after the jump...

DEFENSE DEPARTMENT:
Surge will include thousands of mine-resistant vehicles: The Pentagon has already tapped Oshkosh Corp. to build 6,219 such vehicles by April.

Pentagon IG: Former official abused travel policies: Ex-deputy policy chief Christopher Ryan Henry routinely violated travel policies to reap personal gain -- including ski resort getaways and limousine rentals -- and eventually repaid the government nearly $17,500, according to the Pentagon's inspector general.

GOVERNMENT WORK/LIFE:
Small CFC campaigns plagued by excessive overhead: No surprise here: One in 10 Combined Federal Campaigns apply excessive amounts of donations they collect -- typically between 20 percent and 30 percent -- toward overhead costs.

Panel approves FDA, NIST building plans: The National Capital Planning Commission approved updated master plans for the agency's headquarters in Maryland.

HEALTH-CARE REFORM DEBATE:
OPM could get role running national health plan: The OPM-administered plan is based on a proposal that Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and others have made previously that would create a small business health plan modeled after the federal employee benefits program.

Bill caps flexible spending account contributions: Federal employees with costly chronic health conditions could see out-of-pocket expenses increase if flexible spending account contribution limits remain part of health care reform.

HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT:
Secret Service counts 91 breaches: A summary of a secret 2003 report obtained by The Washington Post, along with descriptions of more recent incidents by federal homeland security officials, places the White House gate crashers squarely in a rogues' gallery of others identified by the agency as defeating its checkpoints at least 91 times since 1980.

Agencies join forces to stop arms trafficking to Mexico: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have primary responsibility for combating illicit arms sales and trafficking. But the two agencies have a checkered history when it comes to working together.

DHS plans hiring overhaul: The department must hire more than 65,700 employees by the end of fiscal 2012 -- the most of any federal agency, according to estimates.

California faces battle in getting more federal fire funding:
Unlike some other federal programs that tie funding to population, the fire grants are awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a competitive basis under the advisement of a peer review panel.

TREASURY DEPARTMENT:
Vintners hail newly granted wine region: Several wine producers in California's Napa Valley tipped their glasses to Washington over the weekend after government officials ended the six-year "Battle of Calistoga."

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By Ed O'Keefe  | December 7, 2009; 7:05 AM ET
Categories:  Congress, Eye Opener  
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Comments

Why wouldn't the government conduct a workshop for its employees behind closed doors? Isn't that the way most organizations work when they do internal training and brainstorming?

Consider journalism. Members of the public may be very interested in how what new reporters for AP or the Washington Post learn about dealing with sources. Or how ethics training (such as might have occurred after the Janet Cooke reporting fiasco) plays out. Or they might be interested in the practical workings of journalism and whether what reporters say at story meetings with editors matches up with what is said about stories in public. But that doesn't mean we can sit in as observers. It would cut down on candor and undermine the training. So too with prep sessions in the government.

Training sessions and workshops are for teaching, they are intended to advance issues and air them out, not to provide a show for anyone. Government offices are no different than the ones reporters work in, in that regard.

I don't know what Sharon Theimer's background is in writing about FOIA. But the whole point of FOIA is that material is screened for release and that there are exemptions which are applied to withhold certain classes of information. Workshops often cover practical application of guidance. That includes whether material which 40+ years of case law suggests should be closed will remain closed when requested in the future.

This workshop apparently centers on how to deal with outside requestors. If some examples of closed information are discussed at a meeting about agency-requester relations, and members of the public were sitting in, the speakers would be revealing undisclosable information. You might as well do away with FOIA exemptions altogether and spill everything.

Posted by: Former_Archivist | December 7, 2009 8:46 PM | Report abuse

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