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Obama's Not-So-Open Government

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.

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 28, 2009; 1:51 PM ET
 
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Comments

At least he know's where his email's are.

Posted by: John97 | May 28, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Ahhhh come on Froomkin, I like the insecurity provided by secret governments. It's like in the old days when the "commies" were watching us.

To make your kids behave, tell them they better be good cause "Uncle Dick" is in the closet waiting for them. I like that feeling of electronic vouyerists in my bedroom as if Newt Gingrich got amplified.

You know, when everything is secret like tracking us by the GPS on our cellphones, it makes things sort of creapy. I like creapy. Oops, was I not supposed to say ppl get tracked by their cellphones, sorry, I saw that on an episode of the Sopranos. Don't they watch TV or do they just stare at themselves on you know that network.

Anyway, remember anything Cheney said is {S,NF}, ask Valerie Plame.

Posted by: markwpa | May 28, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

It's time for a Wiki White House! Great slogan, keep pushing, I actually think you are hard on Obama so far...a change like this takes time after a period of obsessive secrecy. But it's better that you be too hard than too soft.

Posted by: gposner | May 28, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

how open will obama get before it's considered treason...
well...

Posted by: dwightcollinsduarte@yahoo.com | May 28, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

"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.)"

Dan: Do you actually ever listen to the briefings? I have been regularly over the last 60 days. I think your criticism unfair. Many of the "substantive" questions are repetitive, and trying to play the silly gotcha games. Like the President, Gibbs is able to multitask. He is able to respond to the whiny repetitive questions - sometimes the same "reporter" regurgitates the same argumentative question day after day. As well as answering the questions Gibbs is able to display significant humour, and a fair amount of grace.

Posted by: JohnnyCanuck1 | May 28, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

There is a stellar public-private partnership that publishes Community Health Status Indicators (CHSI) for every county in the U.S. plus some independent VA cities. You can view the reports online, print a booklet to take to community meetings, and download the entire data set for your own analyses: http://communityhealth.hhs.gov. Your can also view CHSI maps at http://gis.cdc.gov/chsi/. It's very user friendly. The goal is to help people see their county's data and give them a starting point for developing solutions and policies that improve community health. The data are updated yearly.

Posted by: org2 | May 28, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Short observation - I, too, would like to replace the PR hacks and stenographers with journalists.

LA Times' James Rainey's comment about not playing along is about 7 years too late, but worth noting.

It would be far better for the country if we had JOURNALISTS who were seeking to illuminate and educate the electorate than get ratings and leaks, but ego is a big part of the game. Perhaps we could play a game, call it the "off season" - for X months WH reporters are required to play "the facts, just the facts." Any stories coming out during this period don't get considered for Pulitzers or awards.

Posted by: boscobobb | May 28, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

We get it Dan. You're not going to part of the Obama worshipping media. You're going to be as tough on Obama as you were on Bush. There's too much laughing in the WH briefing room! Why isn't there complete transparency in the WH yet? It's been five months! What the heck has Obama been doing?

Posted by: sonny2 | May 28, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Dan,

Are you aware that this administration has been in office only 4 months?

Taking a government from "nobody needs to know but us" status to the transparency you crave isn't as simple as just opening all the blinds. They do need to look at all the detritus left behind by the idiots in the sandbox and figure out what's there. And that's 8 years' accumulation of stuff we know nothing about because Bush/Cheney kept it all hidden.

Give these folks a chance, ok?

Posted by: kjohnson3 | May 28, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Ohhhhhhh LOL! :-D

Froomkin has started coming out of his delusional and Bushie induced Coma!

Like a Drunk getting a moment of clarity;

the REALITY of the O'Bomba-Nation has revealed itself!

The phony Messiah;

just MIGHT be:

The ANTI-CHRIST! :-o

Nawww!

He'll be back to White House Worshiping by tomorrow!

Posted by: SAINT---The | May 28, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Even as an Obama supporter, I think Gibbs is an awful press secretary. He is barely a step above Scott McClellan and Tony Snow and probably less capable than Dana Perino. Doesn't Gibbs need to spend some more time with his family?

Posted by: troyd2009 | May 28, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I think that the "have patience" argument needs to be put to bed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with what Froomkin is doing here-advocating for more openness from our government. I understand Obama has a full plate. But he needs to be made aware of many Americans' urgent desire to have an accountable and transparent government. That is our role as citizens-to advocate for the change we want, not to sit by and patiently hope that it plays out.
Mr. Froomkin, keep doing an excellent job of holding our leaders accountable. Undue deference can only lead to a tyrannical regime as the Bush era has more than adequately demonstrated.

Posted by: CypressTree | May 28, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Recently ran across these two quotes about news reporting and the function of the media in a democracy.

Journalism is publishing what someone doesn't want us to know, the rest is propaganda. -Horacio Verbitsky, journalist (b. 1942)

Journalists do not believe the lies of politicians, but they do repeat them -- which is even worse! -Michel Colucci, comedian and actor (1944-1986)


Posted by: dkmjr | May 28, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

The longer Obama is in office (not very long) the more he becomes like Bush. No telling where he will be when he tries to really deal with the NKoreans, Iran, & Venezuela. So far too much bait & switch, too many trial balloons, too much "Bush Bad, Obama Good". Sooner or later he will have to accept the responsibility. As a side much of this responsibility should be placed on the congressional democrats (Frank, Dowd, Schumer, Waxman) since they have had control of the congress for 2 years. It would be nice for the "bi-partisan" congress to begin.

Posted by: fcrucian | May 28, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

As one who would commend you for laying bare GWB's underwear (and dirty they were), I encourage you to keep up the good work here as well. After all, the peons charged with displaying openness may well be the ones slow the march to greater transparency. The more reports like these get into the mainstream the more likely Obama is likely to be made aware of our grumbles on the matter. After all he does read the newspapers unlike the previous resident.

Posted by: mendonsa | May 28, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

Dan,

As always, great work.

One drawback with the "wiki whitehouse" idea is that some people that do hands-on work there might unintentionally start "playing to the cameras" and it could lead to lots of problems and lost efficiency.

But it is a very cool idea.

Its kind of like a real-time real-life "West Wing"

Keep up the good work, Dan.

We appreciate it.

Posted by: UniversalHealthCareNow | May 28, 2009 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Hey Markwpa: The "commies" are still watching us - in fact they are stealing form us every day and dolts like you are too clueless to figure it out. Lets try to make it easier by having our government trot out all of our laundry in full public view. . just like the Chinese do.

Posted by: mh53ehawk | May 28, 2009 11:10 PM | Report abuse

The best part of the plan of President George W. Obama is that the next Presidential election can be run with the same promises as the last:

1. Change We Can Believe In
2. Ending Don't Ask Don't Tell
3. Bringing transparency to government
4. Ending the war in Iraq
5. Endign the use of the "state secrets" privilege
6. Closing Gitmo
7. Sending more troops to Afganistan
8. Negotiating a nuclear-free Korean peninsula
9. Bringing peace to the middle east
10. Negotiating SOMETHING with Iran

Posted by: dickdata | May 29, 2009 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Security, silence, truth...(I like hanging out at the end too.)

Posted by: scoreddeep | May 29, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

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