Panelists: Open government a work in progress

Hannah Bergman | Freedom of Information | Feature | January 30, 2009

The Obama administration is striving for a more transparent government but faces a number of practical problems in getting there, according to a host of panelists who spoke Thursday at a conference on information policy in the new administration.

The new White House staff is grappling with an older computer system than the one aides were used to from the Obama campaign, and at the same time must work with records-preservation laws that require them to be more cognizant of what documents they are generating, according to Franklin Reeder. He worked on the Obama transition team and is a former director of the White House Office of Administration.

Reeder, speaking on a panel at the American University Washington College of Law, said the transition team itself had worked hard to be as transparent as possible. “In a way that blew me away, the transition team walked the talk. And it was stunning,” he said.

Transition team members were told to make sure all documents they received were posted online and that they were accessible to a wide range of groups seeking to influence change in government, he said.

But, Reeder said, the Obama administration has had to adjust somewhat as it gains its footing in governance:  An initial draft of Obama’s memos on transparency and the Freedom of Information Act, for instance, was much longer than the one-page document Obama ultimately released on his first full day in office.  

Reeder said the change came because the administration wanted more people and agencies involved in creating the transparency policy. He said the White House didn’t want to create -- ironically -- an openness standard behind closed doors, and then impose it on the agencies.

The administration staff is continuing work on making the government more accessible -- including through its new financial bailout Web site, www.recovery.gov. Reeder said weeks of work have gone into the site’s infrastructure and that as soon as new economic stimulus legislation is passed, the Web page will be ready.

Still, Reeder and national security information experts William Leary and William Leonard cautioned it may be some time before changes are made to the document-classification regime under Obama.

Leary said there might be a tendency in the national security community to think that Obama already made all the necessary changes to transparency in government, and now people can get to their “real jobs.”

Also, he said, most of the people who would need to approve of changes to the classification system and the way government secrets are kept have yet to take office.

More information on the conference, including an archived Web cast, is available on the Collaboration on Government Secrecy’s Web site.