Bennett: Government transparency you can’t believe in
By Amy Bennett July 19, 2013 7:04PM
President Barack Obama (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Updated: August 22, 2013 6:29AM
This year’s graduating seniors entered college just before the Obama administration began. While these graduates are ready to move on to the next stage in their lives, the administration hasn’t achieved the same kind of progress on one of its signature initiatives — creating open government.
On his first day in office, President Barack Obama committed his administration to creating “unprecedented levels of openness in government.” And though his record on open-government issues has been far from spotless, particularly in areas of national security, his administration has at least pushed for substantive change.
For example, it helped launch the Open Government Partnership, a multinational effort encouraging governments to take concrete steps toward making themselves transparent and accountable. And with input from civil society organizations, it has developed a national action plan that includes 26 commitments and aims to achieve 18 goals.
My organization, openthegovernment.org, recently evaluated the implementation of that plan and found that although the government largely met its promises, there’s a wide gulf between the administration’s actions and its open-government goals.
To put it in terms in which recent graduates might relate, the Obama administration turned in some great assignments, but its coursework for core classes remains incomplete.
As part of the plan, the U.S. set out to improve the efficacy of the federal freedom-of-information law. The public should be able to use the FOI law to obtain timely access to government information. But despite the plan and the administration’s much-heralded policy statements on the law, it hasn’t improved much over the secretive Bush administration in carrying out the law.
Many people still must turn to the courts to get information that should have been readily produced in the first place. The public also must often wait in line to get records that should be made routinely available by agencies without an FOI request.
Increasing transparency in government spending was another goal of the Obama plan. In the wake of the 2008 economic collapse and the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the administration developed a new model for helping the public know where their tax dollars flowed and for what purpose.
We should be translating lessons learned from that experience to a system that allows the public to fully track federal funding — from the agency budget justifications to the president’s budget, through the congressional appropriations process and to the point where the Treasury Department cuts a check. But we’re nowhere near that goal.
We also face an enormous backlog of information that should already be declassified. The administration made a commitment in its plan to create the National Declassification Center. But while the center has done good work, the U.S. won’t be able to move through a backlog of about 400 million pages of historical records by the deadline set by the president in 2009.
A focus on declassification is also woefully inadequate, and the administration has yet to act on recommendations made to transform classification — in particular, those made in November 2012 by the Presidential Public Interest Declassification Board.
It’s time for Obama’s open-government commitment to graduate to the next level. The president can’t fix all of these issues without the help of Congress, but it’s within his authority to resolve many of them.
This fall, the Obama administration will release a new version of its national action plan. We encourage the president to use this opportunity to be bold and include strong commitments that will create real, lasting transparency in the federal government.
Amy Bennett is assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of about 80 organizations formed in 2003 to make the federal government more open and accountable.