Latest Obama Transparency Plan Seeks Improved Email Recordkeeping

Obama signs an executive order pledging transparency on his first day in office. Obama signs an executive order pledging transparency on his first day in office. Ron Edmonds/AP file photo

The Obama administration’s third “National Action Plan” to commit to international partners to promote transparency contains an ambitious array of promises—ranging from pushing out data related to climate change, to publishing federal infrastructure permitting on a central dashboard, to promoting evidence-based program reviews.

But the broadest provisions of the plan published Oct. 27 (previous versions came out in 2011 and 2013) would “reconstitute USA.gov as the “front door” to the government while also tightening agency email recordkeeping and streamlining responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.

“The backbone of a transparent and accountable government is strong records management,” the report said. “Modernization of records management improves performance and promotes openness and accountability by better documenting the actions and decisions of the federal government.”

A past directive requires all agencies to manage all their mail electronically by the end of 2016, and the National Archives and Records Administration will release a public data set of positions of government officials whose email will come to the National Archives for permanent preservation under what it calls its Capstone approach.

“This data set will increase transparency and accountability in the recordkeeping process, while facilitating public participation in the ongoing dialogue over records that document key actions, policies, and decisions of the federal government,” the report said. “The Archives will also introduce targeted questions regarding email management to agencies through new and existing reporting mechanisms, and will report publicly on agencies’ progress.”

Noting that the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act comes next year, the plan promises a modernization to improve the public access services offered at FOIA.gov, and to expand pro-active document disclosures that are posted online.

Perhaps the trickiest changes come from the intelligence community’s portion released the same day, which represents what could be the toughest adjustment for a set of agencies accustomed to secrecy. “To earn and retain public trust and ensure accountability, the IC must institutionalize transparency,” said the document, a follow-up to principles laid out in February. “The obligation rests with the IC as a community to establish how to institutionalize transparency, while protecting intelligence sources, methods and activities from unauthorized disclosure.”

In general terms, the intelligence community plans to post more on its website, engage the public through social media and require agencies to appoint transparency officers, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced at a symposium at The George Washington University.

“We believe transparency is worth the cost,” Clapper said, as reported by Politico.” If the American people don’t understand what we are doing, why it’s important and how we’re protecting their privacy and civil liberties, we will lose their confidence and that will affect our ability to perform our mission — which ultimately serves them.”

At least one transparency advocate welcomed the plan’s promise to have the community’s 17 agencies declassify more in a “repeatable process” that maximizes the interests of the general public.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, wrote in a blog that the declassification guidance “points in a direction which is exactly the opposite of where the CIA has taken its Open Source Center (now the Open Source Enterprise). After decades of providing open source material to the public through the Foreign Broadcast Information Service and then the OSC, the CIA terminated those public offerings in 2013. That move might now be reconsidered in light of the new transparency implementation plan (though CIA says it has no plans to do so).”

The larger National Action Plan continued to draw some skepticism from open society advocates. Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, wrote on Tuesday that many of the recommendations by the transparency community were ignored. “Worse, the NAP is filled with commitments that have previously been implemented, are in the works, or are just wrong,” he said in a blog post.

“For example, we were told by the administration that it was interested in receiving open contracting suggested reforms, so civil society groups provided 13 model open contracting commitments,” he wrote. “But in the end, the NAP only touched on three contract-related issues: finding new ways to increase spending transparency by re-imagining USAspending.gov and including all account-level expenditures; using new technologies to improve procurement and grant systems; and centralizing integrity and ownership information on contract and grant recipients. Those general commitments are a good start, but we were expecting more in the area of specifics and the number of commitments that would be offered.”

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