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Fighting Against Special Interests and For the Public Interest: A Year of Change

Summary: 
Norm Eisen, Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, and Aneesh Chopra, U.S. Chief Technology Office, talk about the first year's efforts to change Washington.

Ed. Note: We're happy to host Norm Eisen and Aneesh Chopra in a live video chat at 11:30 AM EST, watch at WhiteHouse.gov/live or join the discussion through Facebook.

Americans chose Barack Obama to be President of the United States to change the way Washington works. To do just that, on his first full day in office, the President signed two critical documents that have shaped the Administration: the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and the Executive Order on Ethics. As a result of the Memorandum on Transparency, we have since Day One, worked to empower the public – through greater openness and new technologies – to influence the decisions that affect their lives. And as a result of the Ethics Order, we have since that same day worked to reduce special interest and lobbyist influence in Washington so the voices of the American people can be heard. 

The results have made history. Don’t just take our word for it--earlier this week, respected independent government reform groups issued a report card that deemed this Administration’s work the “strongest and most comprehensive lobbying, ethics, and transparency rules and policies ever established by an Administration.”   You can read the report card here. You can also learn more about our efforts over the past year in these critical areas by exploring our Open Government Initiative website, and by reading our recently released Progress Report to the American People.

Here are just a few examples of the Administration's progress to date:

Reducing Special Interest Influence

Closing the Revolving Door: President Obama has prohibited former lobbyists from joining the government and working in agencies they lobbied or on the issues they lobbied about. And when members of his Administration leave government, they cannot lobby the government for as long as he is in office. These are by far the toughest rules of their kind ever adopted and earned an “A” grade from the outside experts in their report card. 

Removing Lobbyists from Government Boards and Commissions: The White House informed executive agencies and departments of our aspiration that registered lobbyists should no longer be appointed to agency advisory boards and commissions. These appointees to boards and commissions advise the federal government and shape policy in a wide variety of areas. We have actively recruited average folks from across America to replace the lobbyists on these boards  a dramatic change in the way business is done in Washington.

Opening Up the People's House: For the first time ever, the White House began publishing the names of those who visit the White House—registered lobbyists, unregistered lobbyists, and everyone else. Each month, tens of thousands of records of visitors from the previous 90-120 days are now made available online. This gives the public an unprecedented look at whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.

Tracking Taxpayer Dollars: Mitigating the risk of fraud, waste, and abuse, the Administration is tracking how the government uses the moneywith which the people have entrusted it with easy-to-understand websites like Recovery.gov, USASpending.gov, and the IT Dashboard. These websites allow American taxpayers to see precisely what entities receive federal money in addition to how and where the money is spent.

Listening to the Public's Voice and Serving Their Interests

Instructing all Agencies to Open Up to the American People: In December 2009, the White House issued an historic Open Government Directive, instructing every agency to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public. The product of an unprecedented outreach effort to tap the public’s ideas, the Directive instructs agencies to place high-value information to the public online in open, accessible, machine-readable formats. It also aims to instill the values of transparency, participation, and collaboration into the culture of every agency by requiring each agency to formulate - in consultation with the American people - an Open Government Plan and website. 

Tapping the Expertise of the Public and Front-Line Workers: As knowledge is widely dispersed in society, the President has called on agencies to offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking to enhance the Government’s effectiveness and improve the quality of its decisions.   For example:

  • Education Secretary Arne Duncan embarked on a Listening and Learning Tour to hear ideas on how to strengthen schools.
  • The VBA Innovative Initiative enabled 19,000 employees of the Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA) to submit ideas, through a web-based “idea management tool,” on how to better serve the nation’s veterans. Thousands of ideas were vetted and over ten were selected by Secretary Shinseki to help those who defended our freedom.
  • The Health IT Online Forum drew on the expertise of health-care stakeholders to uncover new strategies to accelerate the adop­tion of Health IT and bend the healthcare cost curve.
  • Using the same free software behind Wikipedia, the Wikified Army Field Guidehas invited military personnel– from the privates to the generals - to collaboratively update the Army Field Manuals in real time so our servicepeople have access to the best possible information when they need it most.

Democratizing Data to Improve the Lives of Everyday Americans: We launched Data.gov in May with 47 data sets but ended the year with over 118,000 – all freely available in machine-readable format. For example, by making nutritional information available, the Administration empowered parents to plan smarter meals for their families. By making information on the status and causes of airport delays available, the government enabled travelers to better plan their days. By making workplace safety information available, we helped employers keep America’s workers out of harms way.

These are just a few examples drawn from what has been a very busy first year for all of us who are privileged to work in government at this historic time. We know we are just getting started in the fight to promote the public interest. We very much welcome your continued help this year and in the years to come to continue to make the promise of change a reality. 

Norm Eisen is Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, Aneesh Chopra is U.S. Chief Technology Officer