March 10, 2013

The Obama administration has dedicated more effort to strengthening government transparency than previous administrations. The president entered office offering a grand vision for more open and participatory government, and this administration used its first term to construct a policy foundation that can make that vision a reality, issuing an impressive number of directives, executive orders, plans, and other actions aimed at bolstering government openness. With the notable, glaring exception of national security, the open government policy platform the Obama administration built is strong. However, the actual implementation of open government policies within federal agencies has been inconsistent and, in some agencies, weak.

This report examines progress made during President Obama’s first term toward open government goals outlined in a comprehensive set of recommendations that the open government community issued in November 2008, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda. We examine activity in the three main areas of the 2008 report: 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.

While the Obama administration deserves praise for the important work it has done to build a platform for open government in its first term, the job is unfinished.

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 each area, we offer detailed recommendations that build on the accomplishments and efforts of the first term and address the highest-priority issues for the second.

Specifically, we recommend that in its second term, the Obama administration:

Create agency environments that support open government

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  1. 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.

  2. The administration should launch an aggressive effort to improve agency compliance with its guidance on fulfilling Freedom of Information Act (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.

  3. 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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 secret claims.

  3. The Justice Department should renounce the use of criminal prosecution for media leaks and protect the First Amendment rights of employees.

  4. The administration should order an end to secret legal opinions, memos, and directives that are used to shield controversial decisions from oversight and legal challenge.