The Road to Federal Transparency

Published: March 13, 2013

When he took office, President Obama promised to make his administration “the most transparent administration in history.” According to a new report issued by the Center for Effective Government, much effort has been put forth in this area, however agency implementation of policies has been inconsistent.

The March 10 report, Delivering on Open Government:  The Obama Administration’s Unfinished Legacy, examines open government progress to date in the categories of creating an environment within government that is supportive of transparency, improving public use of government information, and reducing the secrecy related to national security issues.  Using a comprehensive set of recommendations that the open government

Community issued in November 2008, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda, the Center for Effective Government measured the administration’s accomplishments to date.

The Center offered kudos to the administration on developing a strong policy foundation to support its open government vision, by issuing numerous plans, executive orders and directives, except in the area of national security.  But agency implementation of the policies has been inconsistent and at times, weak.

Technology use has emerged as the strongest area of performance, with implementation of websites, social media, mobile apps and other online tools.   Federal spending information is more readily accessible and user-friendly, and agencies are now required to transition to electronic records management.  Additionally, processes and release of information via FOIA have improved.  Protections for whistleblowers were strengthened, and the administration has also taken an aggressive approach to prosecuting leaks.  

On the flip side, agency policy implementation has been in consistent.  Some agency open government plans have been vague and several agencies have failed to make basic operational information available to the public. 

Additionally, open government advocates have been disappointed with administration’s lack of progress and visibility into national security.  According to the report, the Obama administration has relied on state secrets or secret laws as heavily as the previous administration.  Good policies were established on declassifying documents, but the process is the same. 

Below are the Center for Effective Government’s recommendations to continue open government progress:

Create an environment that supports open government

  • The administration should assign a senior official in the White House to oversee the implementation of open government policies and ensure that individual has the authority to carry out the attendant responsibilities of implementation.
  • Agency heads should develop and make public implementation plans for key open government policies and assign a senior official the responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the agency plan.  Additionally, the interagency Open Government Working Group should serve as a central forum to explore ways to improve overall implementation of open government policies.
  • Congress should play a more active role in supporting open government practices by passing legislation to codify open government reforms, such as the DATA Act and reforms of FOIA and declassification. Relevant committees should improve oversight of current open government policies and implementation. Transparency needs to be established by law.


Improve the accessibility and reliability of public information

  • Agencies should modernize their IT systems to create and manage information digitally, and the administration should establish benchmark requirements for electronic records that all agencies must achieve over the next four years.
  • The administration should launch an aggressive effort to improve agency compliance with its guidance on fulfilling FOIA requests – speeding up processing, reducing backlogs, and increasing disclosure. The Justice Department should work with agencies to avoid FOIA litigation whenever possible and argue positions that are consistent with the president’s transparency principles when in court.
  • The administration should make proactive disclosure of public information the norm and establish minimum standards for disclosure that all agencies should adhere to, such as releasing communications with Congress and posting FOIA request logs. Additionally, agencies should continue to expand the datasets posted online and release inventories of data holdings.


Reduce national security secrecy

  • The administration should establish a White House steering committee on classification reform, initiate an oversight review of agency classification guides, and pursue policy and statutory reforms to streamline the declassification process.
  • The administration should revise its state secrets policy to require independent court reviews of secret evidence and work with Congress to permanently reform the state secrets privilege through legislation. Additionally, the Department of Justice should issue a public report on Inspector General investigations into complaints of wrongdoing that were dismissed because of state secrets claims.
  • The Justice Department should renounce the use of criminal prosecution for media leaks and protect the First Amendment rights of employees.

The Center suggests, “To secure its legacy as ‘the most transparent administration in history,’ the Obama administration 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 its second term, we can expect the administration to continue to make progress in opening up government.  In this era of data, data everywhere anticipate agencies to release more and more data to the public with the expectation of citizens and businesses analyzing it, building applications around it, and using it to further the public good.  However, in the face of sequestration and budget pressure in general, don’t expect agencies to make large IT investments to digitize information or develop new systems for the sole purpose of government transparency.