Open Government Gets a Second Term

by Gavin Baker, 1/23/2013

Four years ago, when Barack Obama assumed the office of the President of the United States, he signaled his commitment to open and accountable government with a set of directives and executive orders designed to make his administration “the most transparent in history.” Significant progress was made in his first term, but the president's vision has not yet been translated into across-all-agencies improvements in openness, and in the area of national security, most civil liberties advocates are disappointed.

To secure its legacy as a transparency champion, the administration will need to focus more attention on improvements at the agency level, lift certain standards, and work with Congress to ensure its reforms are enshrined in law.

First-Term Foundation

In his first inaugural address, President Obama pledged to "do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government." A revamped White House website went live with a promise that "President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history."

The administration quickly set to work to translate these commitments into action, issuing policies calling for greater use of the Internet to share documents and a new approach to administering the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the early months of the administration, the White House issued additional policies tightening the standards for classified information and speeding declassification, protecting the transparency and credibility of scientific information, and reforming the system of controlled unclassified information.

But agency implementation of these policies has been mixed, according to available evidence. For instance, although several measures of FOIA performance have improved, key metrics – including the number of requests processed and the use of exemptions to withhold information – still lag behind the numbers achieved in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. In addition, when tasked with developing Open Government Plans, some agencies offered detailed blueprints for bold and innovative changes, while others submitted plans with overly general language and few details or timeframes. Similarly, there was great variation in agency policies for protecting scientific information from political interference.

Next Steps to Advance Transparency

With its second inauguration, the Obama administration has the opportunity to re-commit to the vision the president offered when he took office in 2009. Building on the lessons learned from the first four years, the administration has a number of examples of successful implementation that it can use to push recalcitrant agencies to improve performance. It also needs to strengthen its policies and work with Congress to write reforms into law.

The White House needs to provide more leadership and step up its enforcement of open government principles across the agencies. To achieve consistently high performance across the federal government, White House staff should devote more time and resources to working with agencies on implementing various open government policies. Additionally, agencies should take steps to elevate open government as a mission goal and ensure a senior point person is charged with keeping openness initiatives on track.

A second critical component of lasting open government reforms should be a proactive legislative strategy. Only by writing open government advances into law can reforms be locked in to prevent backsliding by future administrations.

FOIA will continue to be seen as a bellwether of the president’s open government commitments in the second term. New technological tools, such as FOIAOnline, should be scaled up across government to maximize speedier processing and service improvements. Agencies should be pushed to comply with legal deadlines. And the Justice Department needs to rethink its stance on litigating FOIA cases.

Technology has been a touchstone of the Obama administration during the first term, and its importance and use is likely to increase in the second term. Building on the many positive steps over the past four years to post more government information online, proactive disclosure needs to become the norm across all federal agencies. New government-wide standards should be established for key information that agencies should routinely post online. To make the new standards easier to implement, agencies should also modernize the way they manage information and plan earlier about how to make the data accessible.

The first term of the Obama administration focused on establishing new formal open government policies. In its second term, the administration will need to better understand the informal cultural hurdles to openness to assure continued advances. It will need to conduct a broad examination of the incentives and norms that shape the decisions of personnel charged with making disclosure decisions for a real culture of openness to be established.

The Center for Effective Government will be releasing a more complete assessment of transparency in the Obama administration's first term, including more detailed recommendations for the future, in the coming weeks.