President Obama Issues New Transparency Policies

by

(adapted from an Open House Project Google Group message)

President Obama has stepped to the plate today, and addressed many of the Open Government community’s primary concerns, in issuing several Executive Orders on ethics and transparency.

They’re extremely heartening; the memos (via National Journal) are full of great passages, for example:

A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.  As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”  In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.  At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of
openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public
trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation,
and collaboration.  Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote
efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public.  They should not wait for specific requests from the public.  All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government.  Disclosure should be timely.

Some of this isn’t going to be easy, especially the idea of affirmative disclosure outlined above, which is likely only possible through affirmative designations applied across government records sets, with a careful eye to concerns of privacy, security, and the prerogatives of closed deliberation.  The CTO, OMB Director, AG, and GSA Administrator have quite an assignment for the next 120 days!

Another reason we should follow implementation of these memos closely: it’s only too easy to rely on traditional procedures and distinctions for dissemination.  These memos, as far as I can tell, were circulated through a traditional and closed process, and there’s still no access to primary sources online, from the White House Press secretary, the EO or Proclamation pages, or the blog of WhiteHouse.gov.  This is emblematic of the challenges that are going to face President Obama and his administration as they strive to live up to the promise of a truly transparent, participatory, and collaborative government, as these memos describe.

To be clear, I’d rather have such fundamental changes announced exclusively on the inside of specially marked boxes of cigars than not at all.  These are sweeping pronouncements, and show enormous promise and the realization of campaign and transition promises.  For the open government announcements to come so quickly further cements trust and accountability as what we hope will be central themes of any governmental operations.

It’s the Obama administration’s first full day, and they deserve praise for taking a bold stand on open government issues.  Hopefully their Office of Public Liaison (which is now accepting comments) and new media operations will take center stage as they ramp up operations, empowering the public in the same manner as these memos prescribe for the rest of government.