Administration underwhelming in fulfilling agency openness promise

Submitted by LDieringer on Wed, 07/13/2011 - 7:11pm

A new audit by OpenTheGovernment.org suggests that eight out of ten federal agencies have taken at least some steps since Sunshine Week to make readily available information about their staffs, legislative agendas and reports to Congress reports-—documents and information to which there is no dispute that the public is entitled.

But the audit shows that only six of 29 agencies for which responses were reviewed are fully compliant with promises made by the White House about proactive steps that all federal agencies can and should take. Whether you see that as a glass mostly full or one mostly empty may depend on how much patience you are inclined to have toward an administration that took office in 2009, promising to be the most transparent administration in U.S. history. The new audit also mirrors an overarching theme of a number of studies released during Sunshine Week, which tended to show the Obama administration has made some progress in making the federal government more open, but that there is a lot more that can be done.

That mixed record, coupled with the Administration's zealousness to prosecute whistle-blowers, has left many open government and free speech advocates underwhelmed and unimpressed.

The simple, easy-to-deliver-upon proactive steps toward openness promised in a March 14 blog on the White House Web site by Steve Croley, special assistant to the President for justice and regulatory policy, included posting on-line, at any citizen's fingertips, agency directories, all official testimony before Congress and all agency reports to Congress required by statute. But OpenTheGovernment.org's audit, announced last week, shows that the only federal agencies that have produced open government plans and made available all the specified information are the Agency for International Development, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Some may see these small steps toward more transparency as largely symbolic. But it is more significant for those who feel that a key toward making the government more transparent is changing a culture of resistance and non-disclosure to one in which the government assumes an affirmative obligation to provide information to citizens. Regardless, it will be good to keep an eye on the process between now and next Sunshine Week to see if the gesture makes a significant difference.

The informative new OpenTheGovernment.org audit only dealt with the easy, low-hanging fruit from Croley's Sunshine Week blog. The blog itself touched on a number of arguably more substantive reforms aimed at greater transparency and a January 18, 2011 Presidential Memorandum outlined additional proactive disclosures federal agencies were directed to make this year regarding compliance with, and enforcement of, regulations.

You can read about the audit in more detail at http://www.openthegovernment.org/node/3161.

Ken Bunting
Executive Director, NFOIC