Obama Praised, Criticized in New Report on Transparency

11 March 2013

The Obama administration is complimented and chastised in a new report on the transparency of his first four years in office.

“With the notable, glaring exception of national security, the open government policy platform the Obama administration built is strong. However, the actual implementation of open government policies within federal agencies has been inconsistent and, in some agencies, weak,” according to the Center for Effective Government.

The Obama administration is praised for putting “more effort” into strengthening government transparency than previous administrations, but the “the job is unfinished,” the March 10  report says.

“To secure its legacy as `the most transparent administration in history,’ the Obama administration must encourage agencies to establish environments that embrace openness; improve the accessibility and reliability of public information; and dramatically transform its policies on national security secrecy.”

The Obama administration posted a self-assessment March 11, citing  agency statistics and concluding, “They demonstrate that agencies are responding to requests more quickly and releasing more information when they do. Agencies are reducing backlogs of pending requests and helping eliminate the need to even make requests by proactively providing information online.”

The Associated Press Macrh 11 issued a report by Jack Gillum and Ted Bridis saying:

The Obama administration answered more requests from the public to see government records under the Freedom of Information Act last year but more often than ever cited legal exceptions to censor or withhold the material, according to a new analysis by The Associated Press. It frequently cited the need to protect national security and internal deliberations.

The AP’s analysis showed the government released all or portions of the information that citizens, journalists, businesses and others sought at about the same rate as the previous three years. It turned over all or parts of the records in about 65 percent of all requests. It fully rejected more than one-third of requests, a slight increase over 2011, including cases when it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper.

CEG Makes Suggestions

The CEG report offers 10 recommendations.

  1. The administration should assign a senior official in the White House to oversee the implementation of open government policies and ensure that individual has the authority to carry out the attendant responsibilities of implementation.
  2. Agency heads should develop and make public implementation plans for key open government policies and assign a senior official the responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the agency plan. Additionally, the interagency Open Government Working Group should serve as a central forum to explore ways to improve overall implementation of open government policies.
  3. Congress should play a more active role in supporting open government practices by passing legislation to codify open government reforms, such as the DATA Act and reforms of FOIA and declassification. Relevant committees should improve oversight of current open government policies and implementation. Transparency needs to be established by law.
  4. Agencies should modernize their IT systems to create and manage information digitally, and the administration should establish benchmark requirements for electronic records that all agencies must achieve over the next four years.
  5. The administration should launch an aggressive effort to improve agency compliance with its guidance on fulfilling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests – speeding up processing, reducing backlogs, and increasing disclosure. The Justice Department should work with agencies to avoid FOIA litigation whenever possible and argue positions that are consistent with the president’s transparency principles when in court.
  6. The administration should make proactive disclosure of public information the norm and establish minimum standards for disclosure that all agencies should adhere to, such as releasing communications with Congress and posting FOIA request logs. Additionally, agencies should continue to expand the datasets posted online and release inventories of data holdings.
  7. The administration should establish a White House steering committee on classification reform, initiate an oversight review of agency classification guides, and pursue policy and statutory reforms to streamline the declassification process.
  8. The administration should revise its state secrets policy to require independent court reviews of secret evidence and work with Congress to permanently reform the state secrets privilege through legislation. Additionally, the Department of Justice should issue a public report on Inspector General investigations into complaints of wrongdoing that were dismissed because of state secret claims.
  9. The Justice Department should renounce the use of criminal prosecution for media leaks and protect the First Amendment rights of employees.
  10. The administration should order an end to secret legal opinions, memos, and directives that are used to shield controversial decisions from oversight and legal challenge.
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