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A Decidedly Different Obama on Transparency

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On the first day of President Obama’s first term, he had a lot on his plate. The economy was in recession, Osama bin Laden was at large, and war was ongoing.  But, despite it all, the president made clear that he was going to try to clean up Washington, ushering in new era of transparency and accountability. On his first day in office, the president issued an executive order instituting a new policy that banned White House staff from lobbying the administration for two years upon leaving. He also barred staff from working on issues they lobbied on previously and banned gifts from lobbyists to administration officials.

His goal was "to help restore faith in government, without which we cannot deliver the changes that we were sent here to make."

On his first day in office, the president also issued a Memo on Transparency and Open Government, promising the administration’s commitment “to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government…to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”  The memo promised that the executive branch would “disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.”  It also called for the creation of an Open Government Directive to guide agencies on how to implement increased transparency.

Contrast that robust and ambitious transparency agenda of four years ago with today. While we don’t know yet if he will be signing any executive orders, rest assured that if he does, none of them will be about making government more open and less corrupt. Indeed, while it is unlikely he will overtly backtrack on the lobbyist ban, many expect to see more waivers used to allow recent lobbyists to work for the White House.

On FOIA issues, some have argued that under Obama, agencies have gotten even less transparent, with agencies vigorously fighting FOIA requests instead of honoring them.

Day one of Obama’s second term won’t result in an Open Government Directive 2.0, even though the success of the first OGD were decidedly mixed.

Transparency and accountability are no less important than they were four years ago. We hope the president returns to these issues during his second term, if not on day one, then very soon afterwards.