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. 
Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.