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Eye Opener: One year of 'open government'

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

Happy Thursday! One year ago today, good government groups and transparency advocates cheered as President Obama issued his first executive orders mandating the government "adopt a presumption in favor" of Freedom of Information Act requests and requiring that agencies become more transparent.

"The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama wrote in his FOIA order.

The other order said the Obama administration "will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."

The jury's still out on whether the government has improved the FOIA process (many would say no), but others agree the government has made big steps regarding transparency and collaboration.

Chris Quigley, cofounder of the British e-democracy company Delib, has spent much of the last year consulting federal agencies on their "open government" or Gov 2.0 plans. (Gov 2.0 -- for those of you not in the know -- is the emerging practice of local, state and federal agencies using the latest web technologies for basic government services and to interact with constituents. This is anything from a lawmaker's YouTube page, the mapping technology found at, federal agencies using twitter or GSA's new open dialogue tool.)

Quigley produced a 13-minute video (see above) that features interviews with several open government advocates and local and federal government officials discussing the first full year of Obama's open government initiatives.

Quigley concludes that the biggest challenge facing agencies as they implement Obama's orders is how to effectively turn potential citizen feedback into meaningful, effective policy.

"That is an area where perhaps agencies are struggling," Quigley said in an interview from London. "I think it’s a learning thing, the tools will get better, federal agency civil servants will get better. I would say that things are getting better, but with opening things up, you’ll get that challenge of how you manage that."

Jeffrey Levy, an EPA web and social media manager, tells Quigley in the video that, "People are concerned about too much participation," spawned by Gov 2.0 efforts. Agencies seem especially worried about receiving thousands of comments of feedback and not having th staff and resources to sort through them.

"My usual response is, don’t be worried you’re going to get 2,000 comments. Be worried you’re going to get zero.”

The Eye agrees with Quigley's conclusion that federal agencies are still struggling to determine what, if any meaningful return to expect from the online outreach performed in the last year. The government has certainly taken big steps in the last year to expand its online footprint. But what is the ultimate goal or what will agencies define as success? The comments section awaits your thoughts.

More Obama Nominees Announced: The president on Wednesday tapped Katherine G. Hammack to serve as an assistant secretary of the Army; Theodore Sedgwick to serve as ambassador to the Slovak Republic; Dennis P. Walsh to serve as chairman of the Special Panel on Appeals; Marsha J. Rabiteau to serve as a member of the board of directors of the State Justice Institute; and Earl F. Weener to serve as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. Track all Obama nominees with The Post's Head Count.

Cabinet and Staff News: First Lady Michelle Obama visits the Commerce Department on Tuesday -- her 15th visit to a federal agency. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates (now in Pakistan) says al-Qaeda has used proxy terrorist groups to orchestrate attacks in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. AfPak Envoy Richard Holbrooke says the Obama administration scuttling use of the term "AfPak" because the Pakistanis don't like it. Meanwhile, Mideast Envoy George Mitchell visits Damascus.

Pressure is on for Obama to fill ‘food czar' job at USDA: It's a job with little glory but a lot of responsibility: keeping the meat, poultry, catfish and some eggs America eats safe by overseeing 9,000 inspectors who visit 7,000 slaughter and processing plants daily.

Latinos, youth say they're unfamiliar with the Census: Most Americans are aware that the Census helps determine congressional representation, and slightly more than two-thirds correctly stated that it is not used to locate or identify illegal immigrants.

Pentagon defeats State in turf war round one: The Defense Department has won a major internal battle over control of foreign assistance funding, delaying the Obama administration's pledge to demilitarize foreign policy.

FBI agents seeking phone records used 'startling' methods: The Justice Department's inspector general described numerous lapses by agents seeking material through more than 700 emergency letters to phone service providers between 2002 and 2006.

Obama targets tax delinquent contractors: The plan to crack down on federal contractors that fail to pay their taxes is part of continuing efforts to save taxpayer dollars by cutting wasteful government contracts.

At one-year mark, Obama shows progress on management pledges: He ordered administration officials to scour the budget for initiatives that weren't achieving desired outcomes, and in May 2009, he proposed cuts to 121 programs -- many of them in the Defense Department.

200,000 Haitian migrants could file for Temporary Protected Status: The designation is reserved for selected undocumented migrants from countries disrupted by natural disasters, armed conflicts or other emergencies.

U.S. officials admit to intelligence failures in connection with bomb plot: Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, told Congress that senior national security officials were not consulted before the FBI decided to press civilian charges against the suspect, alleged al Qaeda operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

U.S. moves to ban imports of invasive snakes: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the snakes escape or are released into the wild, where they threaten sensitive ecosystems like Florida's Everglades.

At SEC, the system can be deaf to whistleblowing: The agency has no system in place to guide how officials should handle tips and complaints from outsiders, making it difficult for investigators to take advantage of an invaluable source of information.

Embattled TSA nominee Erroll Southers withdraws: His withdrawal came just weeks after revelations that he gave Congress misleading information prompted several Republicans to suggest his nomination would not move forward without a fight.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | January 21, 2010; 6:23 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener  
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"will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."
Right! That sure worked well with the closed-door, closed-party, revolving lobbyists Obamacare deliberations. Hypocrisy is not transparency, just another example of Obama deceit.

Posted by: jpost1 | January 21, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Misunderstandings about FOIA stem from two causes: (1) a lack of clarity over the meaning of transparency and (2) inability to translate private sector perspectives into public sector ones. FOIA exempts from disclosure certain internal deliberations. There is some give on how to apply some exemptions but not on others. There are going to be marginal differences between how administrations interpret some FOIA guidance but caselaw drives a lot of how it is handled overall.

When people talk about transparency and open government, most insiders believe they mean posting more post-decisional material on the web, using web 2.0 tools to seek citizens’ input, and such like. It’s the same principle under which the company for which a private sector employee works issues reports and post-decisional materials and invites customer input but does not invite the public and competitors to sit in on the brainstorming sessions that product developers have. Just as a company balances transparency and the chilling effect on candid deliberation, so does government. There is the ability to tweak interpretations of the application of FOIA exemptions somewhat. They have seesawed a bit over the last 50 years. But you can’t undo existing case law and precedents. Not recognizing that is a source of many of the expectation gaps.

Posted by: Former_Archivist | January 21, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

The Bush Administration had a policy of opaqueness and to be honest I think they may be on to something. Obama's openness has been used as a club by his opposition and some parts of the media (Fox News, Limbaugh, and others) to beat him up. They take information out of context or outright lie and get in front of the normal news cycle to shape the debate. I think Obama should pull back and acknowledge that some decisions need to be processed in private with details being provided after they are fully developed and can be explained properly. Transparency is fun for the media but not a boon to good governance. The public does not have the time nor inclination to be policy analyst. Therefore, they need to be informed of the what and why of policies and judge based on outcomes.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | January 21, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I naive Obama administration didn't fully comprehend the total hatred the Republican party had for American's who don't have their belief system. Obama must take off the velvet glove and pick up the sledge hammer to get things done. Wait, its too late. Obama has been revealed a sissy. HRC, resign as SOS and prepare for the 2012 elections!

Posted by: JDeter | January 21, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

In everything from quashing White House visitor lists to hiring fleets of unaccountable "czars" to run petty fiefdoms, this Administration has been anything but transparent. Obama wouldn't even permit a social secretary peripherally involved in the Salahi security breach scandal to testify to the grand jury because she supposedly gave confidential advice to Obama. A social secretary. And that's an investigation that ultimately is trying to improve White House security!

"Open government" under Obama has joined the long list of time-honored oxymorons like "military intelligence" and "airport security".

Posted by: zippyspeed | January 21, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Open government, transparency...???
Only in the eyes of this administration. In all of my years, I have never witnessed as much polarization among Americans as I have during this past year!
Some uniter this president! November 2010 can't come soon enough to send this administration and Congress another message as has the State of Massachusetts this week!

Posted by: SeniorVet | January 21, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

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