White House Makes Boneheaded Move in not Proactively Disclosing Transparency Meeting

by Gary Bass*, 3/31/2011

Two days ago, I posted a message about my meeting with President Obama to acknowledge his commitment to transparency and to give him an award for that commitment. During that meeting, the president reaffirmed his belief in transparency and demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the issues involved. I left the meeting assured I had an advocate for transparency running the government, even as we talked about ways of strengthening transparency.

Yesterday, I learned that the meeting was not listed on his public calendar. There is no good excuse for this.

I hope that this blunder falls into what I call the "klutz" category of governing. This meeting occurred after an earlier scheduled meeting was postponed. That earlier meeting was listed on the president’s calendar, so why wasn’t the March 28 meeting also listed? I hope it is as simple as a screw-up, since the president took time to quickly reschedule the meeting upon his return from an overseas trip and in the middle of some pressing issues – Libya, the budget stalemate, and Japan. The White House also erred in not blogging about the meeting or finding other ways to draw attention to it. (Of course, there are those who would criticize the president for taking credit for receiving an award.)

When the White House makes mistakes, there are consequences. We have a president who made a strong commitment to transparency and openness on Day 1 of his administration. A president who, in two years, has shifted the debate from encouraging government secrecy to encouraging disclosure, from trying to convince government that openness is good to focusing on how best to implement government openness. A president who has taken policy positions in favor of reducing national security classification, protecting federal employee whistleblower rights, encouraging proactive dissemination of government information, and much more. In other words, we have a president who not only gets it but has been the leader of the band.

Yet when it came to the first meeting with transparency advocates that any of us have known to occur in the Oval Office, the White House didn't proactively disclose the event or even post it on the president's calendar. By not posting it on the president’s calendar, there was no way for reporters and others to know about the meeting. What irony: a meeting on transparency that was not disclosed beforehand.

Now, instead of the story being about what the president had to say during the meeting and about the substance of the administration's openness policies, the narrative has become about a secret meeting. That's a real shame, but it's a consequence of not addressing the optics and not ensuring that the meeting was transparent.

Five of us representing members of the openness community met with President Obama on Monday. We asked for the meeting to be open, which means that the press would be invited, and we were told it would be. Immediately prior to the event, we were told that the meeting would be private, meaning no press. Though this was disappointing, we moved forward and had a frank discussion with the president about what he has done well and what more we think needs to happen for his to be regarded as the most open and transparent administration in history.

I will defend giving the president an award for his commitment to transparency. He has made a huge difference – and that should be acknowledged. I believe in the carrot-and-stick approach. You can reward someone for the positives and still criticize him or her for the negatives. And we all know there are plenty of ways that government transparency still needs to be improved.

But I cannot justify, nor will I try, a White House decision to not proactively disclose a meeting where the president receives an award for his commitment to transparency.

Despite this shortcoming, my hope is that the storyline about the meeting can move back to a substantive discussion about how to improve government transparency and hold the president accountable on these issues.

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