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Open Government Group Gives Obama a Mixed Report

Advocates are disappointed by lack of agency follow-through on transparency directives.

The Obama administration deserves credit for making a bigger open government effort than its predecessors, but the public has not seen the promised “new culture of openness,” said a study released Sunday by the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch.)

To kick off Sunshine Week on government transparency, the center offered a series of recommendations for agency improvements, especially in the national security area.

“In response to a White House mandate, some agencies developed detailed blueprints for strengthening open government, while others failed to make concrete commitments,” said the study authored by Sean Moulton and Gavin Baker. “Some have embraced a shift to electronic records and have plans on how to manage electronic information, while others lag. Some developed strong policies to protect scientific information from political interference, while others mustered only vague guidelines. But across-the-board improvements have been rare due to inconsistent enforcement, staff turnover, congressional inaction and uncertain funding.”

In a timeline and review of recent history, the center credited the Obama administration for “a grand vision for more open and participatory government” during its first term, and “a policy foundation that can make that vision a reality, issuing an impressive number of directives, executive orders, plans, and other actions.” The job, however, is “unfinished” in part because “the actual implementation of open government policies within federal agencies has been inconsistent and, in some agencies, weak,” the report said.

To make good on its vow to be “the most transparent” administration in U.S. history, the analysts wrote, the Obama team “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.”

In that area, the authors were disappointed that the White House “adopted minor reforms on the state secrets privilege, which allows the government to seek dismissal of lawsuits that could reveal sensitive security information, and failed to include better court review of state secrets claims. The administration has continued to use secret 'laws' to make controversial decisions without oversight, to disallow legal challenge, and to withhold key decisions and memoranda that have the force of law from public scrutiny.’’

Among the report’s concrete recommendations were:

  • Appoint a senior White House official with authority to oversee the implementation of open government policies;
  • Enact the DATA ACT and Freedom of Information Act and declassification reforms (the DATA Act would harmonize agency expense reporting formats and impose a universal reporting requirement for recipients of federal grants, loans and contracts);
  • Ask agency heads to develop an open government implementation plan and tap a senior agency official with responsibility;
  • Modernize agency information technology with benchmark requirements over the next four years; and
  • Renounce the Justice Department’s of use of criminal prosecution for media leaks and institute greater protection of employees’ First Amendment rights.

In preparing the report, the center consulted with an array of allies in the nonprofit open-government community, among them the Project on Government Oversight, the Project on Government Secrecy, the Center for Responsive Politics, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

(Image via Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com)