Whither Transparency

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The New York Times this morning took the Administration to task because White House officials and lobbyists are meeting at a local coffee shop, undermining the White House transparency rules for meetings between its officials and lobbyists. We’re not naive and didn’t expect that releasing the Visitor Logs would capture all meetings between lobbyists and White House officials. I’ve been a Washington denizen for too many years to believe that we’d have total transparency of a very protected relationship.

But the story gives me an opportunity to think about a nagging and ongoing concern: are we being lulled by the rhetoric of transparency?

I have believed — and still want to believe —  that the Administration is sincere in their efforts. It’s not a stretch – but maybe not much of an accomplishment either – to call this the most transparent Administration in (recent) history. No other Administration has even talked their talk, much less tried to walk their walk.

But where there’s a will to hide something, there’s always a way. What concerns me now is whether all the White House promises are anything more than “transparency theater.”

On the one hand, there have been significant pronouncements about transparency for lobbyist activity, and about the need for open information and data. The Administration, from the first full day in office, has made this at least a rhetorical priority. “Good start” we’ve said for some 18 months. And the early signs were promising.

But  the delivery of the rhetoric has been deeply disappointing. The torrent of data we expected to see at Data.gov isn’t materializing. In fact, Luigi in Sunlight Labs quickly calculated that literally only 1 percent of Data.gov is useful if you want to do something other than build a map. (That is, 99 percent of the 272,677 data listings are GIS data — shapefiles that are only useful for mapping software and similar tools.)

USASpending,gov data is riddled with so many errors that it is practically useless. Recovery.gov has been consistently rushed and is having a hard time finding the right balance between flashy presentation and substantive data. And the Open Government Directive delivered very little data and offered few substantive plans for either agency audits or release of it.

Call it a hot Friday afternoon, and maybe I’m cranky, but I think it’s time to begin to ask some tough questions of the White House. Whither or wither transparency?

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  • John Thacker

    “It’s not a stretch – but maybe not much of an accomplishment either – to call this the most transparent Administration in (recent) history.”

    Except when it comes to the USDA, of course.

    But you want to believe!

  • Great blog post, Ellen. I think we’re being far too blue-eyed about our efforts. It takes years if not decades to change bureaucracies that have had decades, if not centuries to arrive at the level of complexity they are in. We need to press hard, but with all our talk of openness and transparency we shouldn’t forget to leave our laptops aside every now and then and see what the facts on the ground are