As the President has recently noted, the Administration has had an extraordinary first year for transparency and open government. We still have work to do, but we have already had some significant accomplishments. That was the conclusion of the respected independent groups that gave us an A for transparency in a recent report card -- and that view was also expressed by other experts in this area who I recently joined on a panel hosted by OMB Watch on government transparency. You can watch a recording of the full panel discussion, and we have excerpted some of the comments below.
Ellen Miller, Executive Director of the Sunlight Foundation, said:
There is no question that the President has set an extraordinarily high bar with respect to transparency in government. And while I think there have been certainly some shortcomings in execution… I think he has begun to make a significant change in the culture of what openness means and move the default of where government information is from being in the hands of government into citizens’ hands… The Administration has clearly endorsed that sort of fundamental cultural shift in information and transparency. It’s a sea change, frankly, not just from the previous Administration… Forget the previous administration; this is a sea change in my decades of experience of Washington…
The important thing that's happening in the administration is not the individual things that they are making available, as important as they are, but the fact that they are beginning to hardwire this default of openness into government.
Transparency is not an issue; it’s a value. And I think that's what the administration has embraced and what’s absolutely key to their successes.
Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel of the National Security Archive, focused on the Administration’s work on three specific openness issues:
[F]or me, these three issues--presidential records, classification, and FOIA--can be summed as showing a pretty good start. A lot of work necessary in a few of these areas but really a tremendous change.
She also noted regarding our historic White House visitor records release (100,000 records and counting) that it is "tremendously brave to expose yourself to that kind of attack, that kind of inquiry."
Sarah Cohen, Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University, while candid about the work that remains to be done, stated:
The idea that we’re here at all talking about transparency says a lot. We wouldn't have been here at all a year and a half ago. Nobody would have had it on an agenda, and nobody would have cared about it. And that makes a big difference… the point about releasing the White House visitor logs is a very important one, that that was a huge step, and one that I think most people around the country looked at and said "that’s really important."
And even Mark Tapscott, the editor of the Washington Examiner's editorial page—which has been pretty tough on the Administration at times—offered some kind words:
Having served in an administration… as a political appointee, I have some appreciation for the political imperative that the transparency issue has to exist within. The political imperative is very simply this: plausible deniability. "Protect the boss." "Save your tail." And that means, too often, we have an incentive to not be transparent. And an incentive that’s institutional and not merely personal. That’s one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to achieve change.
It's also one of the reasons why many of the things that the Obama people have started to do are rather remarkable. It is remarkable, given that imperative, that they would assume responsibility for doing these things.
Our release of the White House visitor logs that the panelists applauded is only one example of the many steps the President has taken so far to increase government transparency. The Administration’s other concrete commitments to openness include issuing the Open Government Directive, putting up more government information than ever before on data.gov and recovery.gov, reforming the government’s FOIA processes, providing on-line access to White House staff financial reports and salaries, issuing an executive order to fight unnecessary secrecy and speed declassification, reversing an executive order that previously limited access to presidential records, and webcasting White House meetings and conferences. The release also compliments our new lobbying rules, which in addition to closing the revolving door for lobbyists who work in government have also emphasized expanding disclosure of lobbyist contacts with the government. And the President capped the year off by calling in the State of the Union for bold transparency initiatives (pdf) as part of his reform agenda for 2010 and the years ahead.
Norm Eisen is Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform