Obama Again Found Lacking in Open Government Efforts

President Obama signs an executive order on transparency his first day on the job. President Obama signs an executive order on transparency his first day on the job. Ron Edmonds/AP file photo

President Obama has still not lived up to his 2009 promise to run the most transparent administration in history, according to a new report card from 16 open-government advocacy groups. They said federal agencies are falling short of their potential in easing public access to sometimes-sensitive documents, “despite commendable efforts and some meaningful transparency advancements.”

The Obama administration still has time to deliver greater transparency on issues affecting national security, privacy and federal spending, according to the analysis of the administration’s National Action Plan released Wednesday by Openthegovernment.org. The report cited weak transparency on such contentious areas as CIA torture, domestic surveillance and drone strikes overseas.

The two-year-old plan represents the U.S. response to an ongoing international Open Government Partnership, the next iteration of which is due at the end of this month. The report card, which includes recommendations in such areas as Freedom of Information Act responsiveness, whistleblower protections and enforcement of email record-keeping, concluded that “just two of the United States’ 26 commitments have been completely fulfilled, with less than four months remaining for implementation.”

The groups urged the administration “to adopt substantive, measurable and transformative commitments, pursue a more collaborative relationship with civil society, actively support transparency-related legislation and policies, push the intelligence community to significantly reduce both secret law and overclassification, and ensure agencies work both to fulfill and exceed commitments.”

In the area of foreign assistance, the report said, the Treasury and Defense departments have actually become less transparent.

Specifically, the report complained that the government’s consolidated Freedom of Information Act portal, FOIA.gov, “does not provide much more than links to agency websites, and does not improve FOIA processing.” The groups recommended that Obama push harder for legislation implementing a “presumption of openness” and mandate that agencies update their FOIA regulations. Agencies should also “reduce the FOIA burden by identifying and proactively disclosing whole records categories, and increase public participation in the proactive disclosure process.”

Perhaps most important, the administration should consider improving guidance to narrow the application of “exemption 5,” the provision through which agencies withhold many requested documents as “privileged communications,” the analysis said.

On whistleblower protection, the report noted that only 5 percent of agency heads have completed training in the Office of Special Counsel Whistleblower Certification Program, and that resources are tight.

Meanwhile, despite “significant advances” in open data such as USAspending.gov and Data.gov, more could be done, the report card said. Currently, the Data.gov platform “does not allow for data consumers to make determinations about what data is missing, and make requests for what data they would find useful,” it said. “As it stands now, government decides what they make public, and that is a problem.”

Treasury unveiled improvements in USAspending.gov’s usability in April, but “the quality of the data published on the site remains poor,” the groups said. “In addition to slow efforts to address data quality and other issues… no clear list is public of items being addressed or deadlines for completion of the ongoing necessary improvements to the site.”

On records management, the report noted that a 2012 presidential directive gives a Dec. 31, 2016, deadline for agencies to “manage all email records in an appropriate electronic system that supports records management and litigation.” Agencies are not on track to meet that deadline, the report said, though it applauded the Capstone email management approach introduced by the National Archives and Records Administration in 2013. “Open government groups have emphasized the need for additional guidance to ensure that the Capstone schedule works as intended, and does not inadvertently authorize destruction of permanent email records,” the analysis stated. 

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