How to open up the Obama administration
In some ways, this White House is the most transparent ever. But it's also prosecuting secret-spillers at a record rate
Happy Sunshine Week! No, it's not about the weather or good spirits. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote open government, transparency, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In other words, advocacy groups and journalists are honoring the policies that keep the public in the know on everything from drinking water to 401(k)s.
So of course, this is the perfect week to examine the open government policies of President Obama, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. Bring some sunglasses for Obama — although you won't need as high a UV protection as the administration might claim. And Romney and Santorum? Bring a heavy-duty umbrella. I'm forecasting a downpour.
Let's start with President Obama, whom Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury calls "two-sided" when it comes to open government.
On Obama's watch, there has been an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, using national security as a justification.
"On one hand, Obama is doing the most to advance open government that any president ever has," she says. "On the other, the administration has been prosecuting whistleblowers and so-called leakers in an unprecedented way."
When Obama shows his good side, the sun shines. He kicked off his presidency by promising that his administration would be "the most open and transparent in history." In December 2009, Obama issued his Open Government Directive, a broad, ambitious memorandum. The directive suggested that Obama was at least starting the open government conversation. Since then, newly established sites like Recovery.gov and USAspending.gov have made government spending more transparent; new information about U.S. nuclear stockpiles has been declassified; and major agencies within the federal government have crafted open government plans.
"In terms of transparency, I think the bureaucratic culture of government agencies has changed for the better under Obama," Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, told me.
This past September, the Obama administration issued a National Action Plan on transparency, part of a global initiative. The plan promised, among other things, to utilize executive branch authority to strengthen whistleblower protections and improve FOIA through technology.
On paper, all of these plans are enough to give good government advocates a healthy dose of Vitamin D. The reality is less bright. It is uncertain whether Obama's open government initiatives will outlast his administration, since all but those created by Congress could be wiped away by an incoming president. And according to the Sunlight Foundation — which has been closely tracking the implementation of Obama's transparency programs — many "agencies have failed to live up to the standards that they set for themselves."
Transparency is often a casualty of national security. On Obama's watch, there has been an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, using national security as a justification. The Department of Justice has used the Espionage Act six times to prosecute leaks of classified information to the media — more than all prior administrations combined. The Justice Department is currently trying to force New York Times reporter James Risen to identify his confidential sources. These actions have sent a chilling message to would-be whistleblowers and journalists to stay silent — or else.
Additionally, according to Politico, Obama's track record on FOIA is murky. The paper wrote: "Administration lawyers are aggressively fighting FOIA requests at the agency level and in court — sometimes on Obama's direct orders. They've also wielded anti-transparency arguments even bolder than those asserted by the Bush administration." (The FOIA Project has further outlined the problems.)
These actions are frustrating good government groups, and they need to be addressed. But to its credit, the Obama administration is at least talking about open government. I contacted both the Santorum and Romney campaigns about their open government plans — but so far, have received no reply.
According to the Government Accountability Project, all the Republican presidential candidates except Ron Paul "have been silent about whistleblowing, except when attacking each other."
Further, let's not forget the $100,000 in state funds Mitt Romney spent to replace computers at the end of his term as Massachusetts governor. This unprecedented move to keep government records secret might have been legal, but it was still ethically questionable, and it certainly doesn't bode well for Romney's stance toward transparency as president.
Ultimately, if this week is to be truly sunny, the Republican presidential candidates need to start talking about open government issues — silence is unacceptable. As for the Obama administration, I'm not going to offer a prescription to improve its open government plans here, as countless good government groups have already done so. Instead, I'm going to support POGO's suggestion that Obama establish a permanent advisory committee comprised of open government experts and the public, to help shape policy. (No, Team Obama's comment-free open government blog does not count.)
A Presidential Advisory Committee on Open Government (PACOG — as POGO has dubbed it) would use collaboration tools, conflict of interest rules, transparency, and technology such as webcasts of meetings and social media to serve as a model for other countries, as well as for the other 1,000 or so U.S. advisory committees. Establishing the PACOG is "the best way to ensure that the government receives unbiased recommendations from a variety of experts and stakeholders in a manner that is transparent and accessible to the public," according to POGO's letter to the Obama administration.
If Romney had a PACOG, it might advise him that "burning files" creates heat — but still leaves your constituents sitting in the dark.