President Barack Obama took office with a promise of transparency. He has made strides, but he still has a way to go.
In his first 100 days, the traditional period for a new administration to set its tone, he hit the ground running. In his inaugural address, he quoted Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous dictum that “sunlight is the greatest disinfectant.” He revoked President Bush’s executive order limiting access to presidential records. He ordered the release of 250,000 pages of previously sealed presidential records. And he reversed former attorney General John Ashcroft’s memorandum telling agencies they could withhold information sought under the Freedom of Information Act.
The new attorney general, Eric Holder, in his second day in office, declared, “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
Fine words. Now has come a long-promised directive on transparency from the Office of Management and Budget: “Subject: Open Government Directive.” The 11-page order gives agencies specific tasks and deadlines. Within 45 days, they must funnel streams of information into a new federal Web site, data.gov, where anyone should be able to find this rather than using the cumbersome system of the Freedom of Information Act. Within 60 days, each agency must create an Open Government Web page as a gateway to it activities.
To establish a “culture of open government,” the directive calls for “an unprecedented and sustained level of openness and accountability in every agency.”
Watchdogs including news reporters and academics are already checking on the actual performance of this promised new openness. One such, the Web site ProPublica — “Journalism in the Public Interest” — had been tracking it almost daily all year. Among shortcomings it has noted was the fact that a Department of Justice open-government training session for federal workers was closed to the public.
The Associated Press reported that the official in charge of the conference, Melanie Ann Pustay, explained the closing order as being necessary so that government employees would be able to speak candidly. The session was also held at the Commerce Department, which requires an ID for entry, she said. Reporters routinely enter government buildings to cover events there.
No one ever said that openness in government would be easy. Reporters are by their nature nosy. And officials, whether federal, state or local, often find media inquiries a burden and an inconvenience.
Ms. Pustay’s effort to permit federal officials to speak candidly may ring a bell with newspaper readers who notice how often officials are relieved from being quoted by name so that they could speak more candidly. If candor were easy and pleasant, there would be no need for an openness directive.
Watchdogs must see to it that the Obama administration lives up to its openness promise.