White House transparency critiqued at D.C. conference

Rachel Costello | Freedom of Information | Feature | January 21, 2011

Leading experts on transparency issues and representatives of the Obama administration gathered Thursday at American University's Washington College of Law for the "Transparency in the Obama Administration: A Second-Year Assessment" conference. Participants at the all-day event, hosted by the college's Collaboration on Government Secrecy, praised and criticized the Obama administration's government transparency policies.

The overall tone of the speakers was praise for the Obama administration in advocating government openness blanketed with a level of frustration in the lack of useable and workable change.

Keynote speaker Steven P. Croley, special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory policy at the White House's Domestic Policy Center, explained the importance of having an ongoing commitment to open government. He outlined the president's agenda of promoting transparency, participation and collaboration, and gave several examples of such efforts, including releasing the White House visitor logs. However, he also cautioned that while the administration remains committed to promoting transparency, the government cannot disclose everything, and it faces technological and economic challenges due to the large amount of time and energy open government requires.

Michael Fitzpatrick, associate administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, spoke about the administration's efforts to bring agencies into the 21st century by updating data available online.

The conference's first panel focused on implementation of the administration's Open Government Directive, which, as defined in an Office of Management and Budget's memorandum, is "intended to direct executive departments and agencies to take specific actions to implement the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration."

Sean Moulton, director of information policy at OMB Watch, said he found this policy was a productive effort to have all agencies implement an open policy plan, but added that he was disappointed in the lack of fundamental government accountability relating to knowing that the government is doing a good job.

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, and Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, expressed frustration about the lack of usability of the information released by agencies. Bass claimed Data.gov seemed to be designed more for Web developers, not for the general public.

The second panel reviewed the government-wide implementation of the Freedom of Information Act memorandum issued by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 19, 2009. Although the memo outlined the goal of ensuring FOIA was put into meaningful practice, Adina H. Rosenbaum, an attorney for Public Citizen, discussed the resistance agencies give when dealing with a FOIA request claiming, "agencies have held records hostage to narrow requests."

Although the Obama administration has been vocal in advocating openness, David Sobel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Anne L. Weismann of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Josh Gerstein of Politico elaborated on the problem of getting documents at the processing level. Gerstein described his frustration with obtaining requested documents, mainly due to the government's definition of timeliness compared to a reporter's definition and problems with FOIA requests going into a "black hole." During the discussion, an audience member who identified himself as an employee for the federal government noted the financial inability of the government in processing FOIA requests. Weismann replied: "If you are really serious about releasing information, you find the money." Sobel said the only available remedy for agency resistance is judicial review.

Gerstein added there has been modest, incremental improvements, but most likely information on how decisions are made will not be disclosed without FOIA.

Other panelists critically analyzed statistics that have been used, and sometimes abused, to measure agency change and performance on transparency issues. Event host Daniel Metcalfe described how measuring success is difficult. Washington College of Law student Andrea Stephenson described the importance in double-checking stats about the progress or failure of the Obama administration's FOIA initiates due to many statistical inaccuracies. Carol D. Leonnig of The Washington Post offered her views on the lack of difference she has seen in government openness between the Bush and Obama Administration. Miriam Nisbet, Director of the Office of Government Information Services, discussed the FOIA mediation services provided by her office in helping resolve FOIA conflicts between agencies and requesters.