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Baking Transparency Into Government

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 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, 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 over time: How should we ask agencies to contribute data sets to 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 and why. We'd also like to encourage you to make suggestions directly to 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 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 (, 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.


By Dan Froomkin  |  June 11, 2009; 12:20 PM ET
Categories:  Transparency  
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Ditto on the disappointment with Obama's decision not to release all evidence of torture so the American public can make up its mind what, if anything,should be done about it. Additionally, the full and true scope electronic surveillance on the Internet from past and current administration should be fully exposed for the same reason. craig

Posted by: squirt07 | June 11, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't trust Obushma on the subject of transparency as far as I could throw him.

He is continuing BushCo's repulive cover up legacy on the most important issues there could possibly be.

His "transparency" on anything else is utterly meaningless and hypocritical.

Posted by: solsticebelle | June 11, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

The complaints about lack of transparency in dealing with national security issues is a bit premature.

When dealing with what currently classified material to release, Obama's people face several choices, each of which is levened by the consideration that once the secret is out it can't be put back, (even though Cheney tried, lots of times).

Any bit of information currently classified has to be considered as though it were properly classified until it is decided otherwise, and that decision needs to be made by a qualified classification specialist.

Once the information is determined to be not properly classified, or to be declassifiable, Obama's people still need to decide whether they should publish the information themselves, or let Congress, or some investigative body do the outing. The more of this stuff that becomes public knowledge "without" Obama's overt action, the worse it is for the previous administration, because it is harder to call it merely politically motivated when it is released in response to some subpoena or FOIA request.

By being "less than transparent" Obama gets to have his inquisition and not get the blow back he would get if his personal Thomas de Torquimada had his finger prints all over the material.

This one requires patience, but by and by we will get all the truth that can be printed.

Posted by: ceflynline | June 11, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

A normal person cannot torture another human being. It is sadism and its practitioners should be exposed.

Posted by: vanessa2 | June 11, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

People who are glomming onto this issue are overly liberal losers.

Let the President have some time to sort this out. There is no immediacy to any of this other than changing policy going forward - WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT HE'S DOING!!

There's only one chance to prosecute the guilty from the last admin and doing it now would be foolhardy to the extreme.

Posted by: farkdawg | June 11, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

His numbers are slipping. Looking for a way to reverse the polling trend.

Posted by: ktchvl | June 11, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Here's an idea: When a crime has been committed and the perpetrators brag about it repeatedly in public, investigate and prosecute -- in public.

Posted by: motorfriend | June 11, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

As I noted on anothr one of Froomkin's posts, when it comes to transparency on the Cheney-Bush Torture ("Hnhanced Inerrogation Techniques") activities, I think that long-term Obama strategy is to allow the vast majority of the collective "torture documents" to eventually become public over the course of his predidential term. It'll be a slow, drip, drip, drip of revelations over a long period of time. (Ironic when we're talking about waterboarding, huh?)

Some (if not most) will become public as a result of court actions (as previously pointed out by Froomkin), allowing Obama to be "removed" (politically) from their disclosure. However, if there are lengthy "gaps" in the disclosure of new torture revelations, I predict the Obama administration with then selectively disclose new facts about torture committed by the US (and approved - although probably actually driven by - the Cheney administration). Such a disclosure schedule will keep the torture issue in the public's eye over a long period of time, until - viola - abvout a year before the 2012 election, the entire shameful story will be out in the open for all to see. This horrendous chapter in American history will then be used by the Obama campaign against any and all Republican candidates who supported (and continue to support to this day) Guantanamo and U.S. torture policy.

It is pretty craven strategy, politically. But Cheney, Bush and their minions (and the Republican Party which continues to apologize for, and refuses to distance itself from, these misguided policies) will have no one but themselves to blame.

If the Republicans were smart, they'd lance the boil that is the "torture debate" so the party can put it behind them. But they appear to be going in the opposite direction.

Posted by: Buster3 | June 11, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I think ceflyline's post above [ceflynline | June 11, 2009 1:49 PM] has it exactly right. There is a process that must be followed; impatience is understandable (I feel a lot of it myself), but the disclosure and investigation has to be done right, for reasons both pragmatic and political.

Posted by: thrh | June 11, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Here's a thought: Remember all those troubling revelations that were exposed during the highly secretive Bush administration? Good journalism in the Post, Times, New Yorker, etc. made sure we were informed of the Republican's assault on the rule of law and the Democrat's willful blindness. The problem isn't so much the lack of transparency, as it's the lack of political will to act and bring transgressors to account. Now that the Justice Department isn't a captive of the White House (hopefully) we should demand that oversight and investigations return, or this ship's going down!

Posted by: russgeer | June 11, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of transparency, if a majority of American citizens want it, why isn't single-payer national health care on the agenda.

We're the MAJORITY.

Forget what the Socialist Republicans want and their comrade CEOs - listen to the CITIZENS!

Posted by: WillSeattle | June 11, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

All I want is for our Federal Government to get back to governing and not act so much like a business as the last regime tried to make it. As we have seen, Bush's governing skills were sadly lackling and Cheney's were outright CRIMINAL. Holder, if he is worth his position, should appoint a special prosecutor to clean up this mess. Nothing less is reasonable.

Posted by: sailorflat | June 11, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse


Perfect comment. Exactly why can't we get single payer health care for EVERYONE! Oh gee, is it capitalism that's stopping it? If it is, then WE THE PEOPLE should demand it. Because our insurance industry certainly doesn't want it because they might have to pay for people to see a doctor that really need to see a doctor. As a person with a disease that is on the list to reject, why are we letting the businss of insurance set the standard? No, WE should set the standard for health care for all of us, regardless of whatever disease one has. It's just not that hard to figure out.

Posted by: sailorflat | June 11, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

in a democracy-paradigm we, the people - each individual :: human, citizen, tradesman, servant, public affair associate - person and legacy :: counts and accounts and discounts and so on ... to the civilizations in its measure & me assured: eco-nó-me & eco-on-me.

so be transparent in this by a-voiding the sacral bilateral spheres that simply said cannot be sacral at all

... and how to protect children in their first 5 years from violent expressions and influences non-transparency seems to have infected?

when we did actually install something we were testing for a while - how to dismantle that?

Posted by: sace009 | June 16, 2009 6:57 AM | Report abuse

"Most notably, I now consider him a willing and active partner in the cover-up of the Bush torture legacy."

I am guessing that is the line that cost Dan his job at the Post. What a monumentally stupid decision: "Hey, let's fire the only real journalist left here at the post. Yeah, we need another nasty neo-con like Krauthammer or yet another mealy-mouthed establishment-loving turd like Ignatius - yeah, that'll do it!"

I sincerely hope the Obama admin. did not have a hand in this.

Posted by: Convolutor | June 18, 2009 11:13 PM | Report abuse

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