Open and Shut

One of President Obama’s first actions after his inauguration in 2009 was to issue a memorandum on making the government more accessible to the American people. 

“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” the president wrote. “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.” 
 
Since then, it’s been a long and winding road toward achieving this vaunted ideal. 
 
For those of us in the news media, the Obama administration hasn’t ushered in an “unprecedented level of openness.” What we often see is increased stonewalling on interviews with key officials, a pileup of pending Freedom of Information Act requests, an unwillingness to share more than basic information about government operations, a lack of trust in reporters, and an ever tighter level of message control.
 
That concern probably doesn’t elicit much sympathy in the federal ranks. Indeed, in May, a Public Service Recognition Week event at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington quickly turned into a media-bashing session. Reporters, both participants and attendees agreed, overwhelmingly focus on the negative in federal operations.
 
“The good stories are buried on page five in the lower-left corner and are gone in a few seconds,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
 
After various reporters stepped up to the microphones during the session to ask about recent scandals at GSA and the Secret Service, one federal employeedrew a round of applause when she declared that she was not a member of a news organization.  
 
Federal officials doubtless know that many Americans share their dim view of the media. And that surely emboldens some of them to believe that the public will not equate failure to meet reporters’ demands with failure to conduct government operations in an open and participatory manner.
 
But there’s also a deeper issue at work here, as Joe Marks points out in our cover story this month: When discussing openness and transparency, administration officials and good government advocates are simply speaking a different language than members of the news media and watchdog groups. 
 
To the administration and other transparency proponents, openness tends to be centered on data: making raw information collected by the government available in such a way that developers can use it to build applications that are helpful to citizens, informative and, in some cases, profitable. Not incidentally, such applications often play a key role in holding politicians, executive branch appointees and career civil servants accountable for their actions.
 
The problem is even repressive regimes can make certain data sets available to the public while hardly meeting the definition of “open.” So some scholars say it may be time to separate the concepts of open data and open government. 
 
Even then, officials in the Obama administration and subsequent administrations likely will still choose to define openness and transparency in government in terms favorable to them. Already, it’s clear they prefer to take their case directly to citizens through social media and other technological innovations, rather than through mainstream media outreach. Obama, after all, recently became the first president to promote a Twitter hash tag in a public address.
 
The American people probably won’t have a problem with this approach—and might not even notice the news media being edged out of the process. 
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