Day One: President Obama Pledges to Open Government – International Openness Advocates Applaud US Reforms

23 January 2009

Washington, DC – On Day One of his administration, President Barack Obama took authoritative steps to “create an unprecedented level of openness” in the US government through an executive order and two presidential memoranda.

International openness advocates, including more than 60 organizations and individuals in at least 30 countries, have issued a statement welcoming the new US policies on transparency and freedom of information: “President Obama has demonstrated clear global leadership on this issue, signaling the fundamental importance of open government in a democracy.” (Versions of the statement are also available in Spanish, French, and Arabic).

President Obama’s Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act is a clear rejection of the anti-disclosure principles espoused in the October 2001 Ashcroft memorandum, which governed executive branch agencies under the Bush administration. The FOIA Memorandum states “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” With this memorandum, President Obama also expresses his hostility to the use of secrecy laws to cover up embarrassing information and directs the Attorney General to issue new guidelines governing FOIA.

President Obama also issued an executive order flatly rejecting the policy of the previous administration on the Presidential Records Act (PRA). Holding himself “to a new standard of openness,” the new PRA Order greatly limits the ability of former presidents to invoke executive privilege to withhold information. Now, only the incumbent president may assert constitutional privileges to withhold presidential records, and not without review by the Attorney General and White House Counsel first.  The Order also establishes clear deadlines to ensure that public release of presidential records will not be unduly delayed.

Finally, the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government pledges the new administration to “establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” The Transparency Memo directs executive departments and agencies to use technology to disseminate information and to solicit public feedback about government operations.  The to-be-named Chief Technology Office, along with several other senior officials, must develop an Open Government Directive to implement the new transparency policies within 120 days.

President Obama’s Transparency Memo states, “Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge.” All three presidential actions embody the idea that state and society are not enemies and the belief that openness, accountability, and collaboration are to the benefit of all.

LINKS

Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act (January 21, 2009)

Executive Order on Presidential Records (January 21, 2009)

Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government (January 21, 2009)

Statement: “Members of Global Openness Community welcome President Obama’s Initiative on Transparency” (FOI Advocates Network)

Press Release: “President Obama embraces openness on day one” (National Security Archive)

Read the Statement at Access-Info.org

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