Obama's Not-So-Open Government

By Dan Froomkin
1:51 PM ET, 05/28/2009

The Obama administration has taken three significant steps toward greater openness in government in the past week.

Last Thursday, the White House launched a major new initiative -- one that, appropriately enough, starts off with a request for public input -- to increase transparency, participation, and collaboration throughout the federal government. It also launched Data.gov, a new Web site intended to be a vast public repository of federal data, presented in a format that will allow it to be easily used by the public.

And just yesterday afternoon, President Obama sent a memo to agency heads, giving them 90 days to suggest ways to reduce over-classification of documents, ease declassification and prohibit reclassification.

That's all well and good. But it's not remotely enough. And Obama's efforts thus far don't even come close to fulfilling the promises he made on his memorable second day in the White House, when he vowed that transparency would be a touchstone of his presidency.

"The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable," Obama said at the time. "And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served."

But when it comes to transparency, the White House should be leading by example. Or, more accurately, the White House does lead by example -- and the example it's setting is way short of what Obama led us to expect. With some notable exceptions, Obama's White House hasn't been dramatically more transparent than the notoriously secretive one before it.

There is still a tremendous predisposition against disclosure there. Internal records stay internal, while the distribution of key public documents is actually less reliable than it was in the Bush years -- especially on the White House Web site.

Administration officials routinely hold briefings where they demand anonymity for spin sessions that aren't remotely controversial or sensitive. (See, for instance, James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times and Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post writing about Tuesday's example.)

One of the most important litmus tests, in my mind, is the number of White House aides who are authorized to speak to reporters on the record. That currently amounts to only a handful of people, pretty much all of whom see their primary goal as sticking to talking points, spinning and delivering pithy sound bites. There should be dozens of people willing and able to actually explain to reporters what's going on inside the White House.

The White House Web site's much-vaunted blog is mostly window dressing, rather than window. (With some notable exceptions, including the participation of Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and Jared Bernstein, the vice president's chief economic adviser, and the live streaming of a few select White House meetings.)

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apparently considers his role as primarily defensive and treats questions like things that need to be fended off, rather than engaged. The result has been a race to the bottom in the briefing room, where substantive queries are often a waste of time, and Gibbs instead yuks it up with the (mostly) boys in the front row. (Politico's Patrick Gavin documents the press room hilarity, as reflected by the 600 instances of laughter reflected in the transcripts of Gibbs's briefings so far -- or more than 10 per day.)

As Rainey writes in his LA Times story: "It's nothing new for an incoming administration, particularly a popular one, to be aggressive about presenting information the way it wants. But the media has an obligation not to play along."

Indeed, the media should aggressively push back. We should be demanding better answers, refusing to enable the anonymice, and constantly asking why the White House isn't living up to Obama's promise.

I realize that despite Obama's lofty words, transparency presents some powerful downsides for the White House press operation. In our modern political media culture, "controlling the message" has become the ultimate Washington goal. Indeed, the media actually reward politicians who "control the message" way more than those who are frank and forthcoming and potentially "off message."

All this said, there are still glimpses of hope in what Obama's team is doing.

As Carrie Johnson writes in today's Washington Post, Obama's memo "directed his national security adviser and senior Cabinet officials yesterday to examine whether the government keeps too much information secret.....

"Obama asked for recommendations on 'the possible restoration of the presumption against classification' that would preclude making something secret where there was 'significant doubt' about the need to do so. It also raised the possibility of a 'prohibition of reclassification of material that has been declassified and released to the public under proper authority.'

"Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, praised the move as a way to 'set the wheels in motion.'

"'This is music to the ears of many of us,' Aftergood said, 'but the hard work remains to be done -- how to translate these goals into policies.'"

Data.gov is very promising. As Kim Hart wrote in The Washington Post, "agencies will post data that can be culled by Web developers to make new Web and cellphone applications...

"Beth Noveck, deputy CTO in the Office of Science and Technology, and Vivek Kundra, chief federal information officer... have used the past four months to develop new online tools designed to allow citizens to participate in crafting new policies and have access to traditionally hard-to-find government data.

"'This whole process is premised on the notion that people are smart and they have things to share,' said Noveck, a law professor who was a technology advisor to Obama's transition team before joining the White House staff. 'It's an important step in creating opportunities for citizens to engage with the government and co-create policy.'"

But, as Hart writes: "Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, has expressed frustration with the sluggish process. She said emphasis should also be placed on making available internal records, such as policy papers and e-mails.

"'Data is important for accountability, but so is how policy was formed,' with other types of records, she said. 'But no agency has a system for managing electronic records.'"

And let's hope data.gov takes off faster than Recovery.gov, the Web site Obama promised would allow taxpayers to track stimulus money, which as Alec MacGillis wrote in The Washington Post, thus far "offers little beyond news releases, general breakdowns of spending, and acronym-laden spreadsheets and timelines."

The White House's experiments in public input have been impressive and historic -- although ghettoized and somewhat irrelevant. Obama's online town hall in March was a huge success, even though Obama's answers didn't break any new ground.

And now the online brainstorming session the White House announced last week to generate ideas for openness in government is actually pretty exciting.

The White House announced: "In a sea change from conventional practice, we are not asking for comments on an already-finished set of draft recommendations, but are seeking fresh ideas from you early in the process of creating recommendations. We will carefully consider your comments, suggestions, and proposals."

There will be three phases. In the first one -- that actually ends today, so act now -- members of the public can submit their own ideas, and vote thumbs up or thumbs down on those submitted by others. "Then on June 3rd, the most compelling ideas from the brainstorming will be fleshed out on a weblog in a discussion phase," the White House said. "On June 15th, we will invite you to use a wiki to draft recommendations in collaborative fashion."

Here are the top ideas as of now.

The top vote-getter at this hour was suggested by House Republican leader John Boehner's office, and calls for a 72-hour mandatory minimum public review period on all major spending bills brought before Congress. One problem with that, as Nancy Scola writes for the TechPresident blog, is that "Boehner's call has to do with the operation of Congress -- not something that the President, however powerful, has much control over."

But I quite like the proposal from Steven Aftergood, the anti-secrecy advocate quoted by Johnson above. "Start with the Decision to Disclose," he writes. "Openness means disclosure, followed by dissemination, which enables further interactions. But too often government agencies never make it past the first step – the decision to disclose. And so this is where reform efforts should start."

For instance, Aftergood writes: "Despite the President’s declared commitment to disclosure, not even the White House meets the standard that he has set. For example, the public cannot access Obama Administration Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs) or Policy Study Directives (PSDs) through the White House web site, even when such directives are unclassified. The problem is not that the directives are in the wrong digital format, but that they have not been officially released in any format."

A few other sample ideas: Require all Federal Government meetings that are subject to the Open Meetings Laws to be Webcast online and Make Immigration process transparent.

Me, I'd like to see every federal agency's Web site -- starting with the White House's -- run by an Internet/disclosure team, distinct from the press office and staffed primarily by people with journalism backgrounds, rather than PR. Right now, I find most government web sites being used for one-sided propaganda -- and boring propaganda at that.

As I wrote back in a November essay, It's time for a Wiki White House, the Web site should be a window into the intellectual foment of the West Wing, full of interoffice e-mails and Webcam interviews with staffers that allow the public to get a sense of what people are actually thinking and talking about over there. Public input should be solicited not about general topics, but in response to the specific questions White House aides are considering in real time. White House bloggers should be constantly answering questions from other bloggers and other members of the public.

Yes, this would involve ceding some control of the message, but it would ultimately gain the White House greater legitimacy, trust and participation. It would hugely accelerate the very kind of public engagement and collaboration -- and accountability -- that Obama ostensibly desires.

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