White House lets some sunshine in, but still not enough

The White House has made some good moves toward increasing government transparency, but there’s still a lot more to be done.  Recent reports by the Associated Press and the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), give the White House mixed reviews in its effort to make good on President Obama’s campaign promise to shed more light on the inner workings of government. But even the harshest critics acknowledge that breaking down long-established barriers to government information is a monumental task in a town where traditions die reluctantly, where exclusive access to information is a tool of power, and where “need-to-know” is the insider’s mantra.

On the plus side, CRP gives the White House and Congress kudos for:

…[regularly releasing]  records of who is visiting the White House. The U.S. House now posts expenditure data online, and it’s becoming the norm for congressional leaders to release the final legislative language online for 72 hours before bills are voted upon.

CRP also notes other positive steps in the right direction, including:

.. an executive order on [President Obama’s] first day in office with new ethics rules, a later ban on lobbyists from serving on government advisory boards and a new rule to post contacts with special interests on federal agencies’ websites.

It’s a start, says CRP. Another major step forward is data.gov, whose self-stated purpose is “to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.” It’s a data-rich site, which recently added a blog where citizens can suggest improvements and additions.

On the debit side, the Associated Press reports that “one year into its promise of greater government transparency, the Obama administration is more often citing exceptions to the nation’s open records law to w.ithhold federal records, even as the number of requests for information declines.”  The AP’s report is based on a review of agency audits about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  According to the report,

“Obama’s directive, memorialized in written instructions from the Justice Department, appears to have been widely ignored.  Among the most frequently cited reasons for keeping records secret: one that Obama specifically told agencies to stop using so frequently—is the Freedom of Information Act exception, known as the “deliberative process” exemption, which lets the government withhold records that describe its decision-making behind the scenes.

Major agencies cited the exemption at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year, up from 47,395 times during President George W. Bush’s final full budget year, according to annual reports filed by federal agencies. Obama was president for nine months in the 2009 period.

The administration has stalled even over records about its own efforts to be more transparent. The AP is still waiting – after nearly three months – for records it requested about the White House’s “Open Government Directive,” rules it issued in December directing every agency to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public.

The White House… described the directive as “historic,” but the Office of Management and Budget still has not responded to AP’s request under the Freedom of Information Act to review internal e-mails and other documents related to that effort.

Agencies won’t be able to stall much longer, says the White House, because they face an April 7 deadline to create new transparency plans. As reported in the National Journal, Norm Eisen, Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, says, “FOIA compliance is where [we have] seen the most improvement. The Department of Agriculture put in tracking technologies for FOIA requests; the Department of Defense retrained over 500 persons involved in FOIA request processing; and the Federal bureau of Investigation has changed policy to comply with requests.”

The government’s track record under the Freedom of Information Act is widely considered a principal measurement of how transparently it makes decisions.

CRP’s Sunshine Week report credits the Obama administration with making progress toward its transparency goals, but cautions the White House and Congress not to “rest on their laurels.”  The report gives simulated academic grades to issues of openness that still need to be addressed, including:  Senate campaign-finance reporting; 527 committees; campaign expenditures; personal financial disclosures; lobbying; donors to presidential libraries; and politicians’ ties to leadership PACS. CRP also offers handy guides to action for citizens, to help push the openness agenda forward.

Whether the Obama administration can follow through on its good intentions for openness in the Executive branch, and whether the President can influence Congress to do the same, remains an unanswered question. Let’s keep our eyes open.