White House Issues Transparency Directive and Progress Report

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Following up on President Obama’s Transparency Memoranda signed on his first day in office, the White House today issued two new documents pledging openness: An “open government directive” instructing the heads of federal departments and agencies to take specific actions to open their operations to public scrutiny; and a “progress report” outlining what the administration has already done.

The new directive, from Peter Orszag at the Office of Management and Budget, requires executive departments and agencies, within specific deadlines of not more than two months, to publish more information about their work online in an open format that can be retrieved and searched easily.

The progress report recounts what the administration has done so far to improve transparency, including writing new ethics rules to (mostly) prevent lobbyists from coming to work in government or sitting on its advisory boards; publishing the names of White House visitors; creating Websites that track how the government spends taxpayer money; reversing a Bush administration executive order that limited access to presidential records; and adopted a new state secrets policy. (The report neglects to mention ongoing criticism about the effectiveness of some of these measures.)

The latest transparency directive, while welcomed by open-government advocates, also highlights the fact that the sort of opennness Obama called for on his first day in office still has not taken place inside many executive agencies.

As Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel of the National Security Archive put it in a statement released after the White House announcement:

The Administration appears to realize that even eloquent statements of principle will not shift the bureaucracy’s natural and political tendency towards secrecy.

As for OMB’s new timetables to require more openness, she said:

The only thing missing is a clear enforcement regime, but if the White House, OMB, and the heads of the agencies are serious, then they will use their authority to make these changes real. In some ways that is the test of how serious the Obama Administration is about transparency.

Update: Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News notes that the new directive “does not extend to classified national security information or controlled unclassified information, both of which are to be addressed in other pending executive orders. But it does direct agencies to reduce any backlogs in Freedom of Information Act requests “by ten percent each year.”

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