On Day Two, President Obama issued new Executive Orders and memoranda — including an Executive Order on Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel, a memoranda on Transparency and Open Government and one on the Freedom of Information Act — indicating a dramatic break in the executive branch’s stance toward being held accountable to the public it serves. Roll Call called today’s action by the new president “sweeping,“and we agree.
Clearly, creating greater transparency in government is a high priority for the new administration. This is a good beginning and it represents real change. Under these new directives, President Obama has prohibited executive branch employees from accepting gifts from lobbyists, and puts a stop to the revolving door, preventing any incoming staff who are former lobbyists to work on matters which they previously lobbied. It also prohibits any current staff who leave their positions from ever returning to lobby the administration while Obama is president.
But at least as importantly, if not more so because of the dramatic break from the past that it represents, we particularly pleased to see President Obama’s focus on making government records more readily available under FOIA. The very same quote from Justice Brandeis that inspired our name (“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…”) also inspired Obama, who referenced it in the opening paragraph of memorandum on FOIA. Under this directive, open government advocates (not to mention our own Real Time team) should see better responsiveness to FOIA requests. The administration aims to err on the side of transparency and requests to withhold information will be subject to review and approval by the Justice Department and the administration legal counsel.
Regarding the FOIA action, Columbia Journalism Review makes note that Obama used an executive order. This order in effect nullifies a 2001 memo John Ashcroft, then President Bush’s attorney general, had issued overturning one Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general had issued years before. Obama’s executive order has more legal force and symbolic importance, making it harder for future presidents to nullify. CJR termed his action “a quick and prominent victory for government openness.”
It’s very encouraging that one of President Obama’s first official acts in office was to show a sweeping commitment to freedom of information, transparency and open government.
The irony is that, as of 6pm today, many hours after the announcement of these actions, they are still not posted on at WhiteHouse.gov. We know it’s Day One but …… Thanks to our friends at TechPresident, you can see them here.
While the administration’s real challenge will come in implementing the details, today’s announcement is a dramatic break in the executive branch’s stance toward being held accountable to the public it serves. To be sure, President Obama and his administration recognize the critical role of technology to create greater government transparency.
Of course, there’s still more work to be done. We hope that moving forward, each agency should do an audit of its information and data how it makes it available. The new administration should also redefine the definition of “public information” to mean that government information is not public until it is posted online in an easy-to-download format.