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Baking Transparency Into Government

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 06/11/2009

I'll be off Friday, attending the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Baltimore. Blogging will resume Monday.


Something extraordinary happened a few days ago: A White House official actually asked me what sorts of things I needed to know in order to hold the government more accountable.

And here's what's even more extraordinary: She didn't just ask me. She asked you. Heck, she asked everyone.

Robynn Sturm posed that question -- among many others -- right on the White House Web site, as part of President Obama's ambitious and high-minded Open Government Initiative:

As the Obama Administration contemplates new approaches to making government more open, we want to hear from you. What do you – the non-profit fighting in the public interest, the company creating jobs for Americans, the journalist engaged in newsgathering, the teacher of civics, the mother and interested citizen – need to know about the way government works in order to feel more knowledgeable, to be empowered to participate, and to hold government accountable?...

How do agencies make decisions about health care reform, economic recovery, and clean energy? Who are the decision-makers? With whom do they meet and from whom do they take advice? How do they work?

Are those great questions, or what?

Obama's approach to disclosure issues is turning out to be profoundly schizophrenic. On national security issues, Obama has been intensely disappointing. Most notably, I now consider him a willing and active partner in the cover-up of the Bush torture legacy.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, Obama's West Wing, with some notable exceptions, hasn't been dramatically more transparent than the notoriously secretive one before it.

But over at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), people like Sturm -- and her boss Beth Noveck, Obama's deputy chief technology officer -- are pursuing the goal of open government with admirable and appropriately transparent enthusiasm.

And here's the really good news. While Obama's national security-related disclosure decisions have thus far been case-by-case (and reversible), the work at the OSTP, which was put in motion by executive orders Obama signed on his second day in office, could actually bake transparency and accountability into government in a way that would be hard to undo down the line.

The OSTP is now in Phase II of a project that began with a brainstorming session that I wrote about here. We're now in the blogging -- and discussion phase.

And while the OSTP blog can get wonky in a hurry, and the ensuing online discussions aren't attracting anywhere near the quality or quantity of reponses that the excellent questions deserve, they deserve a lot of credit for trying.

Here are more of Sturm's questions:

How do we weigh the value of transparent operations against the costs required to report accurately and comprehensively on the day-to-day workings of government?

How do we balance the demands of open government with the need to create spaces where advisors, experts, and stakeholders can speak candidly without fearing short-term political ramifications?

How do we provide citizens with meaningful insights about how their government works rather than deluging everyone in overwhelming detail?

For the record, I think a big part of the answer to all these questions is to inject more journalism and journalists into the equation. In some cases, that means making many more people available to reporters -- on the record. In other cases, that may mean actually hiring journalists on staff -- rather than public-relations professionals -- although how exactly you build a Chinese Wall to protect them from being pressured to toe political lines, I'm not sure.

And here's one more request from Sturm:

tell us how the private sector and government can best "mash up" such information (e.g. mapping campaign contributions against meeting schedules) to transform raw data into knowledge.

You gotta love it.

In a June 2 blog post, Noveck explained how the most promising ideas had been culled from the brainstorming session. Some of the highest vote-getters didn't make the cut, since they were off topic -- or, as Noveck put it, "The ideas that received the most organized support were not necessarily the most viable suggestions." Among those that did make it to the next phase:

Agencies should explain all policy decisions and the rationales behind them in readable language...

Simplify implementation of FOIA....

Post frequently requested categories of information...

Publish a directory of who works in government....

Publish a list of everyone who meets with the President...

Allow government employees to speak to journalists more freely to foster news-gathering....

[B]est practices around the use of crowdsourcing to evaluate data should be established.

Noveck had this to say about the bigger picture:

As the President emphasized in his Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act: "A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, 'sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.' …At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike."

Taking advantage of the transparency of the brainstorming session, the watchdog group OMBWatch.org did its own analysis of the brainstorming session, which is also worth reading.

In a June 8 blog post, Vivek Kundra, the nation's chief information officer, wrote about data.gov, the recently launched repository of government data:

1. Our goal is to improve collection, storage, and dissemination of data government-wide. We'd appreciate your feedback on how to improve and grow Data.gov over time: How should we ask agencies to contribute data sets to Data.gov? Should we have them inventory and prioritize all their data? Or set a fixed number of data sets that must be published each year? Or set a voluntary target?

2. While our focus here is on developing government-wide policy for data transparency, we are also interested in hearing what new data you'd like to see on Data.gov and why. We'd also like to encourage you to make suggestions directly to Data.gov here.

3. Finally, tell us what types of applications you'd like to see built to leverage all this data. Share with us a little about why you think those applications might be compelling. Better yet, if you are a software developer, we encourage you to start using Data.gov to build applications useful to businesses, government, and the American people!

In a June 10 post, Michael Fitzpatrick, the associate administrator of the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs asks for suggestions about how to improve government responses to information requests from the public:

What recommendations are there for agencies to pro-actively post information on their websites to avoid a FOIA request from even occurring?

What are your recommendations to make FOIA reading rooms more useful and information more easily searchable, as they are meant to be a mechanism for information dissemination to the public?

At the TechPresident blog, which follows such things assiduously, Micah Sifry was impressed by some of the responses to Sturm's post.

One reader suggests looking "at the Environmental Working Group's farm subsidy database (http://farm.ewg.org/farm/), which is built on 15+ years of data obtained under FOIA from USDA" and offers a highly detailed look at the irrationality of US agricultural subsidies. Another suggests that every government employee be required to create their own Facebook page where they answer the question, "What are you working on?" And one Jane Mansbridge, who I assume is the Harvard professor, offers a succinct and useful explanation of how to "distinguish between transparency in process and transparency in rationale." She writes:

The U.S. Supreme Court does not have transparency in process (rightly in my view) but is required to provide transparency in rationale.

When there are good reasons to protect candid speech (as in almost any sensitive negotiation), the balance shifts toward transparency in rationale (and against transparency in process). When there are good reasons to suspect self-serving dealing (for example, a history of corruption or favoritism in an agency), the balance shifts toward transparency in process. In any particular case, a decision on the appropriate degree of transparency should consider both sets of reasons.

This is great stuff.

Indeed.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:15 AM ET, 06/11/2009

Here is President Obama's statement in response to yesterday's shooting: "I am shocked and saddened by today's shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms. No American institution is more important to this effort than the Holocaust Museum, and no act of violence will diminish our determination to honor those who were lost by building a more peaceful and tolerant world. Today, we have lost a courageous security guard who stood watch at this place of solemn remembrance. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends in this painful time."

Aluf Benn and Barak Ravid write for Haaretz that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "will announce in his foreign policy speech scheduled for Sunday the adoption of the road map and the 'two-state solution' for settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, according to sources close to the prime minister." That's one step closer to Obama's view. But, Haaretz adds: "Sources close to the prime minister said Netanyahu will not announce during his speech a freeze on construction in the settlements, as the United States has insisted Israel must do."

David Cho, Zachary A. Goldfarb and Tomoeh Murakami Tse write in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration named a 'compensation czar' yesterday to set salaries and bonuses at some of the biggest firms at the heart of the economic crisis, as part of a broader government campaign to reshape pay practices across corporate America." Also yesterday, "officials proposed two pieces of legislation that separately empower shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission to exercise more oversight over executive compensation at all publicly traded firms."

Reuters reports: "Barack Obama has presented a fresh understanding of Islam not shown by predecessors, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in his first interview since the U.S. president addressed the Muslim world from Cairo."

Najmeh Bozorghmehr, Anna Fifield and Roula Khalaf write in the Financial Times: "Suddenly, the image of America is shifting. No longer can the US be simply dismissed as the evil superpower bent on remoulding the Middle East in its own image and threatening its enemies into submission. From Tehran to Cairo, people are starting to believe that befriending the US is not as poisonous a prospect as it has been."

Kenneth P. Vogel writes for Politico: "The White House has refused a request from Sen. Chuck Grassley for all the exemptions it's granted to President Barack Obama's ethics policy. And that's got the Iowa Republican on a mission to make public every ethics waiver and recusal issued to administration officials."

Greg Sargent blogs that "Dick Cheney Practically Destroyed The GOP, But Still Won't Go Away."

Good Questions From a Senator and an Activist

By Dan Froomkin
11:02 AM ET, 06/11/2009

Over in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, a senator and an activist raised a series of important questions that deserve to be aggressively pursued.

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) took to the Senate floor to talk about torture, the campaign of falsehood that has been pursued by its defenders, and the many things the public still doesn't know.

Meanwhile, at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, suggested questions that the Obama administration needs to answer before it embarks upon a regime of prolonged detention.

Whitehouse, in his floor speech, started with some questions about the torture itself:

What did Americans do? In what conditions of humanity and hygiene were the techniques applied? With what intensity and duration? Are our preconceptions about what was done based on the sanitized descriptions of techniques justified? Or was the actuality far worse? Were the carefully described predicates for the torture techniques and the limitations on their use followed in practice? Or did the torture exceed the predicates and bounds of the Office of Legal Counsel opinions?....

What was the role of private contractors? Why did they need to be involved? And did their peculiar motivations influence what was done? Ultimately, was it successful? Did it generate the immediately actionable intelligence protecting America from immediate threats that it had been sold as producing? How did the torture techniques stack up against professional interrogation?...

There is another set of questions around how this was allowed to happen. When one knows that America has over and over prosecuted waterboarding, both as crime and as war crime; when one knows that the Reagan Department of Justice convicted and imprisoned a Texas sheriff for waterboarding prisoners; when one sees no mention of this history in the lengthy opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel at DOJ that cleared the waterboarding--no mention whatsoever; when assertions of fact made in those OLC opinions prove to be not only false but provably false from open source information available at the time; when one reads Chairman Levin's excellent Armed Services Committee reports on what happened at the Department of Defense, it is hard not to wonder what went wrong. Was a fix put in? And, if so, how?...

There has been no accounting of the wild goose chases our national security personnel may have been sent on by false statements made by torture victims seeking to end their agony; no accounting of intelligence lost if other sources held back from dealing with us after our dissent into what Vice President Cheney refers to as the "dark side"; no accounting of the harm to our national standing or our international good will from this program; no accounting of the benefit to our enemies' standing--particularly as measured in militant recruitment or fundraising; and no accounting of the impact this program had on information sharing with foreign governments whose laws prohibit such mistreatment.

And Whitehouse urged the Obama administration to declassify information that would expose the lies:

[T]here has been a campaign of falsehood about this whole sorry episode. It has disserved the American public.... [F]acing up to the questions of our use of torture is hard enough. It is worse when people are misled and don't know the whole truth and so can't form an informed opinion and instead quarrel over irrelevancies and false premises. Much debunking of falsehood remains to be done but cannot be done now because the accurate and complete information is classified...

It is intensely frustrating to have access to classified information that proves a lie and not be able to prove that lie. It does not serve America well for Senators to be in that position.

While congressional and executive branch investigations continue, he said,

I want my colleagues and the American public to know that measured against the information I have been able to gain access to, the story line we have been led to believe--the story line about waterboarding we have been sold--is false in every one of its dimensions.

Over at that Senate hearing, Malinowski, in his prepared remarks, suggested questions the committee should ask if Obama actually proposes some sort of system of preventive detention:

First, can Guantanamo detainees be moved to a new system of detention without trial in the United States without making it seem like Guantanamo was being transplanted to U.S. soil? Would such a new system repair the damage Guantanamo has done to America's reputation, or perpetuate it?...

A second question is whether one can create a new form of preventive detention without enduring more years of frustration and delay?...

A third question I hope you'll ask is whether the risk of releasing truly dangerous people would be lower with a preventive detention system, or higher?...

A fourth question is whether a preventive detention system would effectively delegitimize terrorists in the way that the criminal justice system does?...

That leads me to a final question: Would a preventive detention system actually prevent terrorism?

Malinowski made no secret of his views on the matter:

We should stop experimenting. We should not build yet another untested structure on a foundation of failure. We should finally, at long last, bring to justice the men who killed thousands of people on September 11, and others who have committed or planned or aided the murder of Americans. And we should do it in a system that works.

Stumping for His Health Care Overhaul

By Dan Froomkin
10:54 AM ET, 06/11/2009

President Obama today launches the outside-the-Beltway part of his campaign to overhaul the American health-care system.

Philip Elliott writes for the Associated Press:

Administration officials said the president's speech in Green Bay would contain no new policies, but would instead put Obama — and the traveling White House press corps — in position to hear directly from people who are affected in the existing system. Those stories, Obama's political aides said, would be key to selling the final product....

Green Bay resident Laura Klitzka, a 35-year-old, married mother of two, was set to introduce Obama at a town hall-style meeting. Klitzka has metastatic breast cancer and carries about $12,000 in unpaid medical bills.

Before leaving Washington, the White House released a biography on Klitzka, saying "she doesn't want to lose their house over her illness and while she knows she won't be able to see her children grow up, she wants to be sure the time she has left with them is quality and not spent worrying about health care bills."

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post:

When President Obama touches down today in Green Bay, Wis., he will be landing in one of the highest-value health communities in the nation, a city that by numerous measures has managed to control medical spending while steadily improving health outcomes.

"If we could make the rest of the nation practice medicine the way that Green Bay does, we would have higher quality and significantly lower costs," said Peter Orszag, the Obama administration budget chief who has emerged as a key player on health-care reform.

In his drive to rein in skyrocketing health-care costs, Obama is increasingly focused on wasteful medical care that does not extend life and may actually be harmful. Today's town-hall-style meeting, his first as president to promote health reform, is intended to spotlight one city's strategy for squeezing out waste without hurting quality.

Next stop on the health-care tour: Chicago. Bruce Japsen writes for the Chicago Tribune:

President Barack Obama on Monday will address delegates to an American Medical Association meeting in Chicago.

The AMA's 543-member policy-making House of Delegates meets this weekend through next Wednesday, setting its advocacy agenda for the coming year.

This will not be an entirely welcoming crowd. Robert Pear writes in the New York Times:

As the health care debate heats up, the American Medical Association is letting Congress know that it will oppose creation of a government-sponsored insurance plan, which President Obama and many other Democrats see as an essential element of legislation to remake the health care system.

But as Sam Stein reports for Huffingtonpost.com:

Historically and philosophically, however, AMA's opposition is hardly newsworthy. Despite a lofty reputation and purported commitment to universal coverage, AMA has fought almost every major effort at health care reform of the past 70 years. The group's reputation on this matter is so notorious that historians pinpoint it with creating the ominous sounding phrase "socialized medicine" in the early decades of the 1900s.

Carrie Budoff Brown writes for Politico:

President Barack Obama's plan for a government health insurance program has touched off an increasingly fierce Democratic civil war on Capitol Hill, as liberals fearful about squandering the chance to achieve that goal are taking aggressive steps to keep moderates in line....

"It is all about Democrats," said Adam Green, chief executive officer of Change Congress.... "We only need 50 votes. We could conceivably have 60 votes on our own if we keep Democrats unified. It is a matter of convincing Democrats whose conventional wisdom is based on the old political order. This is an extremely popular proposal spearheaded by an extremely popular president, and it is OK to support it."

Laura Litvan writes for Bloomberg:

Senators drafting health-care overhaul legislation, seeking to win Republican support, are weighing whether to create nonprofit cooperatives to expand insurance coverage.

Republican criticism of a government-managed insurance program, the so-called public option, looms as a major obstacle to efforts to craft health-care legislation. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said the alternative idea of the cooperatives was broached yesterday when four senators from both parties met with President Barack Obama to discuss the drive to curb health-care costs and extend coverage to most of the nation's 46 million uninsured.

Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said Obama was "interested," and later senators in both parties met throughout the day to discuss the concept.

On the op-ed pages, David S. Broder writes in The Washington Post:

The time may come -- either before or after the House votes on its bill -- when Obama may have to demonstrate his flexibility on the issue of a government-run option.

Former Bush guru Karl Rove writes in the Wall Street Journal:

If Democrats enact a public-option health-insurance program, America is on the way to becoming a European-style welfare state. To prevent this from happening, there are five arguments Republicans must make.....

[T]he public option is just phony. It's a bait-and-switch tactic meant to reassure people that the president's goals are less radical than they are. Mr. Obama's real aim, as some candid Democrats admit, is a single-payer, government-run health-care system.

Responding to Rove's piece, Daniel J. Mitchell blogs for the libertarian Cato Institute:

Karl Rove should have been named Man of the Year at some point by the Democratic National Committee. The political consultant/Bush adviser played a big role in expanding the burden of government....He also helped ruin the GOP image with his inside-the-beltway version of "compassionate conservatism," thus paving the way for big Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008....

I'm baffled why Republicans or conservatives would give him the time of day.

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:25 AM ET, 06/11/2009

Conan O'Brien, via U.S. News: "President Obama's in the news, of course. He's put healthcare back in the news. Yup. President Obama says he wants to create a national healthcare plan that's both affordable and easy to use. Yup. Yeah, good. Yeah, and the insurance industry says they'll fight the plan with congressmen who are both affordable and easy to use."

And following in the footsteps of his boss, Vice President Biden makes a cameo appearance, by video, as Stephen Colbert entertains the troops in Baghdad.

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Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:21 AM ET, 06/11/2009

Stuart Carlson on Obama's cover-ups, Jim Morin on America's yellow streak, Mike Keefe and Joe Heller on Obama's health-care diagnosis, Tony Auth on bad medicine, Bruce Plante on clunkers, Eric Allie and Steve Kelley on "pay-as-you-go", Randy Bish on debt and David Horsey on another reason to despise Obama.

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