By Jennifer LaFleur
By arrangement with ProPublica
After eight years of tightened access to government records under the Bush administration, open-government advocates were hopeful when Barack Obama promised greater transparency.
Four years later, did the president keep his promise?
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a consortium of right-to-know groups. “I think they’ve made progress, but a whole lot more remains to be done.”
The Obama administration set the bar high. In his first inaugural address, Obama said that “those of us who manage the public’s dollars” will “do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
The next day, the president issued two memos. In one on the Freedom of Information Act, he wrote that FOIA “should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
“It takes somebody beating up on the chief FOIA officer and the head of the agency to make sure the message is being heeded all through the agency…”
A second memo addressed transparency: “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.” And that “openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
But transparency was not defined in detail, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). “People were left to imagine whatever they wanted to be the content of those statements. Inevitably, disappointment soon followed.”
Next came more memos and directives, including a memo from Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging federal agencies to release discretionary information and a White House directive outlining an open-government to-do list for agencies.
Among the assigned tasks:
In early 2010, ProPublica tracked how well agencies followed up. Some agencies missed key deadlines. Others did not complete all tasks.
Two months ago, the National Security Archive found that “66 of 99 federal agencies” never updated their FOIA regulations even though Holder ordered them to make changes in a March 19, 2009, memorandum.
Obama’s second inaugural address contained no mention of transparency and no memos or directives have called for a more open government. That leaves some to wonder if the commitment to transparency continues.
“It takes somebody beating up on the chief FOIA officer and the head of the agency to make sure the message is being heeded all through the agency,” McDermott said. “And they haven’t done that.”
But all has not been dark and cloudy. The secrecy veil is beginning to lift in some areas.
Last year, the White House released its visitor logs, and Obama signed legislation that provided greater protection for government whistleblowers.
Citizens can get more information about government spending than they could have previously through websites such as Recovery.gov and USASpending.gov.
The administration also created Data.gov as a repository of federal data. A December 2009 White House memo directed agencies to make “high-value” data sets available on the site. Although Data.gov was criticized for its lack of usability and the selection of data, it now has more than 350,000 data sets from agencies.
Another website, FOIA.gov, tracks data about how agencies respond to FOIA requests for records and provides tools to help citizens make requests and track for information.
“We know more today than ever before about intelligence spending,” Aftergood said, citing bright spots. “And we know more today than before about the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.” (Estimates put the U.S. stockpile at just more than 5,000 in 2012, according to an FAS report.)
Some basics also have changed. Many agencies employ simple, yet helpful practices such as communicating with FOIA requesters and giving them ways to check the status of their requests. Some agencies have posted contact information for their FOIA offices and other personnel on their websites.
“Reducing secrecy and improving transparency are still compelling ideas that are good for reducing costs, improving efficiency, and engaging the public in a constructive way…”
Still, many requesters say they continue to face delays and costly processing fees. Although government data show that agency FOIA backlogs are significantly lower than in 2008, the figures for 2011 show an increase from the two prior years. An analysis by Bloomberg News last fall found that nineteen out of twenty cabinet-level agencies failed to properly fulfill FOIA requests.
“Other areas are like duck feet paddling beneath the surface,” McDermott said. “You may not see them, but they are moving.”
In fiscal year 2011, agencies processed 8 percent more FOIA requests even though the number of incoming requests went up. And now, more than forty years since the passage of FOIA, government employees who process requests have an actual job category—“government information specialist.”
Obama’s second inaugural address contained no mention of transparency, however, and no memos or directives have called for a more open government. That leaves some to wonder if the commitment to transparency continues.
According to White House spokesman Eric Schultz, it does. “While creating a more open government requires sustained effort,” he said, “our continued efforts seek to promote accountability, provide people with useful information, and harness the dispersed knowledge of the American people.”
“Reducing secrecy and improving transparency are still compelling ideas that are good for reducing costs, improving efficiency, and engaging the public in a constructive way,” Aftergood said. “Those of us who do advocacy in that area shouldn’t be disappointed. We should get to work.”
Jennifer LaFleur is ProPublica’s director of computer-assisted reporting (CAR). She was the CAR editor starting in 2003 for the Dallas Morning News, where she worked on the investigative team. She has directed CAR at the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was IRE’s first training director. She has won awards for her coverage of disability, legal, and open government issues. Ms. LaFleur is the co-author of IRE’s Mapping for Stories: A Computer-Assisted Reporting Guide.