Barack Obama’s campaign for the United States Senate, in 2004, was driven by a clear moral commitment to the need to make government more open and more accountable to the people. His record of work in state government to tackle predatory lending, corruption and ethics conflicts, helped make him a national figure almost upon entry into the Senate. He sponsored and pushed the most sweeping ethics reforms in over a generation, to make government more transparent, and promised to do so as president. Now, the White House has issued a studied and comprehensive open government directive that will ensure greater transparency and a freer flow of information to the public.
Transparency has been one of the unheralded yet highly contentious issues of Obama’s young presidency. His soaring pledges of a new way of doing business in Washington were seen as many as a promise that on Day 1, he would eliminate all obstacles to total transparency, and reject out-of-hand any recourse to executive privilege in protecting aides and advisors. He was much criticized for expressing sympathy for the need for some such safeguards, but during his first days in office, he issued executive orders that would do more to promote transparency than any president in recent memory.
One of the executive orders explicitly bars the president from using unilateral authority to classify documents related to legally contentious issues as top-secret or to use the British judicial precedent of a “state’s secrets privilege” to cover-up wrongdoing. Pledging to take concrete steps to limit the influence of lobbyists’ money on both Congressional and White House policy was instrumental in building Obama’s mainstream appeal and his powerful support-base among independent voters. The steps that were able to be taken right away were, as an expression of the political will to make good on promises about open government.
On his very first day in office, President Obama signed a memorandum to all federal agencies directing them to break down barriers to transparency, participation, and collaboration between the federal government and the people it is to serve.
As an example of the steps taken in response, the White House, for the first time ever, now publishes the names of everyone who visits. We are also publishing online never-before-available data about federal spending and research. At Data.gov, for instance, what started as 47 data sets from a small group of federal agencies has grown into more than 118,000 today – with thousands more ready to be released starting this week. And in March, the Attorney General published updated FOIA guidelines, establishing a presumption in favor of voluntary disclosure of government information – an important step toward enabling the American people to see how their government works for them.
The Open Government Initiative was launched in May, with the specific aim of involving the public in the process of policy-making, allowing unprecedented levels of interaction between the general public and the executive branch of government. Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, explains that “tens of thousands of Americans participated, and thousands of ideas were generated”. The administration has used public input as part of its effort to craft a comprehensive policy of open government and transparency.
The Open Government Directive specifies a series of key priorities that need to be embraced as part of a government-wide effort to be more open and consistently engaged with the public. The directive specifies that certain “valid restrictions” —legitimate service of national security clearly among them— would be allowed, to ensure the cultural shift to government openness doesn’t reveal sensitive details about security, investigations or ongoing negotiations.
The document specifies:
To the extent practicable and subject to valid restrictions, agencies should publish information online in an open format that can be retrieved, downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications. An open format is one that is platform independent, machine readable, and made available to the public without restrictions that would impede the re-use of that information.
The strategy for achieving this new policy of government-wide transparency hinges on the following points:
- Publish Government Information Online
- Improve the Quality of Government Information
- Create and Institutionalize a Culture of Open Government
- Create an Enabling Policy Framework for Open Government
The plan is also aimed at aiding government staff in achieving greater transparency by making the paperwork process more efficient, thus reducing the burden for staff working to comply:
Within 120 days, the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), in consultation with the Federal Chief Information Officer and the Federal Chief Technology Officer, will review existing OMB policies, such as Paperwork Reduction Act guidance and privacy guidance, to identify impediments to open government and to the use of new technologies and, where necessary, issue clarifying guidance and/or propose revisions to such policies, to promote greater openness in government.
The new directive was issued to the heads of all federal agencies on 8 December 2009, specifying actions that should be taken to make each agency better able to engage with the public. The directive is built around three principles: transparency, participation and collaboration. Orszag explains the reasoning as follows: “Transparency promotes accountability. Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise to government initiatives. Collaboration improves the effectiveness of government…”